Today’s daf (Sukkah 49b) is very special as some of the most exquisite teachings about Chessed are found in today’s daf. Here we are taught that giving tzedakah is greater than bringing korbanot, and here we are taught that performing acts of Chessed surpasses giving charity. Yet notwithstanding this, I would like to turn my attention to the explanations found in today’s daf on a particular biblical phrase – one that most of us recite every Friday night while singing Eshet Chayil.
Rabbi Elazar asks: ‘What is the meaning of the phrase “פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ – she opens her mouth with wisdom and the Torah of Chessed is upon her tongue?”’ (Mishlei 31:26). Of course, at least on face value this verse does not need any further explanation as it is clearly singing the virtues of the Eshet Chayil who is understood by many to be Ruth (see Ruth 3:11 where we are told כִּי אֵשֶׁת חַיִל אָתְּ) – such that Eshet Chayil is a tribute written by Shlomo HaMelech to his great-great-grandmother Ruth. According to this explanation, the ‘Torah of Chessed’ is understood to refer to the teachings and examples of Chessed performed by Ruth which we should all seek to emulate.
Yet while Eshet Chayil refers to a person (Ruth) and a set of personal qualities (which we should emulate), it is also understood to refer to Torah itself (nb. it should be noted that Rashi has two commentaries to Eshet Chayil, with one describing the virtues of the Eshet Chayil, and the other referring to the Torah as our Eshet Chayil), and it is with respect to this second approach that Rabbi Elazar asks: ‘What is the meaning of the phrase “פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ – she opens her mouth with wisdom and the Torah of Chessed is upon her tongue?”’, and then follows up by asking, ‘וכי יש תורה של חסד ויש תורה שאינה של חסד – Is there a Torah of Chessed and a Torah that is not of Chessed’?
To this, two answers are offered relating to the intent of Torah study: According to the first answer, Torah studied לשמה – ‘for its own sake’ is what is being referred to as Torah of Chessed, while according to the second answer, Torah studied ללמדה – ‘with the intent to share and teach it’ is what is being referred to as Torah of Chessed.
While some may claim that these answers are mutually exclusive, I don’t think this needs to be so. Instead, based on the insights in today’s daf, as well as our understanding of Eshet Chayil, I believe that the ideal Torah of Chessed is Torah that is studied for its own sake and on its own terms which is then shared with and taught to others with the hope that it will encourage and inspire those touched by these holy words and teachings to enrich and enhance the lives of others by the Chessed that they do. And while I cannot claim to say that I achieve this each day, or perhaps even on any day, it is important to understand that this is what I try to do through the Torah that I learn and share – to learn Torah, to emphasise the quality of Chessed in Torah, and to encourage people to do Chessed as inspired by Torah. And why is this so important? Because as Rabbi Sacks so beautifully explains in ‘To Heal a Fractured World’ (pp. 45-46):
‘What is Chessed? It is usually translated as ‘kindness’ but it also means ‘love’ – not love as emotion or passion, but love expressed as deed…Chessed is the love that is loyalty, and the loyalty that is love. It is born in the generosity of faithfulness, the love that means being ever-present for the other, in hard times as well as good; love that grows stronger, not weaker, over time. It is love moralized into small gestures of help and understanding, support and friendship: the poetry of everyday life written in the language of simple deeds. Those who know it experience the world differently from those who do not. It is not for them a threatening and dangerous place. It is one where trust is rewarded precisely because it does not seek reward. Chessed is the gift of love that begets love.’