Responsibility not Chesed
Chesed is never quite disinterested. Even the tahara (purification) of a deceased person, chesed shel emes done without any expectation of reciprocity, provides the one performing the mitzvah with a feeling of satisfaction. Part of that satisfaction lies in the feeling that doing chesed is in the category of eino mitzuveh v'osei – one who performs without being commanded -- and that one has therefore gone beyond the call of duty.
Obviously, a person who takes great pleasure in doing chesed for others is at a very high level. But there is nevertheless a danger that one will desist when the chesed is difficult or other pleasures beckon. An even higher level is when one acts on behalf of others out of a sense of obligation. Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky gives a moshol to capture the distinction. If one lends someone money, he has done an act of chesed. But if one becomes a guarantor for a loan, and subsequently has to repay the loan, that repayment is not an act of chesed, it is obligatory.
That distinction lies at the heart of the Torah's comparison of Noach and Avraham. Rashi, at the beginning of parashas Noach, goes to great lengths to emphasize the contrast. Noach is described as "a righteous man . . . in his generations." The mention of "his generations" hints, according to one rabbinic opinion, to the fact that he would have been of little account in the generation of Avraham. In addition, we are told that "Noach walked with G-d," in contradistinction, Rashi notes, to Avraham, who "walked before G-d."
What is gained by comparing Noach's level of righteousness to that of Avraham? And if such a comparison is to be made, why do so in terms of the generation of Avraham, which was not exactly filled with other tzaddikim besides Avraham? Just say Noach was not a great as Avraham.
The Zohar makes the criticism of Noach explicit. According to the Zohar, as Noach surveyed the destruction, upon leaving the Ark, he challenged Hashem to explain how the Merciful One could have wrought such destruction. Hashem replied that it was too late for Noach ask such a question, when Hashem had fairly begged him to pray for his generation before the Flood. Elsewhere we find the Flood referred to as "mei Noach – the waters of Noach" (Yeshaya 54:5). Because Noach did not do everything he could have to prevent the Flood, either influencing his generation to do teshuva or praying for them, he is held responsible.
The reference to Noach as a "righteous man in his generations" is now understood. Because he was the most righteous of his generation he was responsible for that generation. In the generation of Avraham, he would have been of lower status, and therefore not held responsible for the generation. But as the greatest figure of his generation he was held accountable. That is the meaning of the rabbinic statement, "Yiftach in his generation is comparable to Shmuel in his generation."
Context is everything. One's degree of responsibility is contingent on his surroundings. Mesilas Yesharim begins with the question: What is a man's obligation b'olamo? – in his world, the world in which he finds himself.
True, none of us are likely to be numbered among the greats of the generation, and held responsible for the entire generation. But each of us in "his world" will find himself in situations where he can help a fellow Jew and no one else is capable or willing to do so. In such situations, we should not view ourselves as having been presented with an opportunity to do chesed, but rather has having an obligation to help.
It is not enough that we "walk with G-d," and piously console ourselves that if Hashem wants a Flood – or its equivalent in the context of our world – it will happen, and if not, it won't. We are obligated to "walk in front of Hashem" and do everything we can to forestall the tragedy from taking place. That is what Hashem demands of us.
Even though the survival of the Ark, given the magnitude of the Flood, was miraculous, Hashem did not extend the miracle to feeding the animals in the Ark. Noach was kept busy around the clock providing food to the animals as a tikkun (corrective) for his failure to save his generation. He was placed in a situation in which he was responsible for each animal, and even the slightest delay in feeding a single animal would result in punishment.
Humility is also no excuse. When Noach was told that he and his family would be spared the decree of destruction, he may have felt that he was unworthy to be saved and therefore in no position to pray that Hashem's beneficence be extended even further to the evildoers of his generation. Yet when Avraham prayed for the people of Sdom, he did not do so based on any claim of his own merits. He admitted that he was but "dust and ashes," and nevertheless advanced his plea. No one else was in a position to do so, and therefore he was responsible.
There is a second element to recognizing our efforts on behalf of others as obligatory, rather than in the category of optional good deeds. That element is identification with others. When I daven for myself, I don't view that as doing an act of chesed with myself. Nor do we view davening for our children as an act of chesed; our children are an extension of us.
Rabbi Dessler describes the power of Moshe Rabbeinu's tefillah after the Sin of the Calf as deriving from his total identification with the entire Jewish people, expressed in his plea that Hashem either forgive the Jewish people or "erase me now from Your book that You have written." If we understood the implication of the principle, "Every Jew is a guarantor for every other Jew," which means we are each a part of a single corporate body, we would come to view the good we do for our fellow Jews not as an optional act of chesed, but as an obligatory act of self-preservation.
The Legacy of Alter Chanoch Jeger, a"h
Two months ago, I spent Shabbos with my friend Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsburg and his family in Cedarhurst. We were joined by the Ginzburgs' daughter Ilana and son-in-law Yudi Jeger, and their children Alter Hanoch Henoch, 2 1/2, and Shua, ten months.
I had previously read about Alter Hanoch in a powerful article by his grandfather entitled, "It's not supposed to be like this," written in response to requests addressed to Rabbi Ginzburg for help in understanding horrible tragedies, especially those involving children. The power of the piece derives from Rabbi Ginzburg's revelation in the last paragraph that he is writing while sitting in the intensive care unit by the bed of his infant grandson Alter Hanoch, who contracted meningitis within twenty-four hours of birth and has no hope of developing normally.
During my Shabbos in Cedarhurst, Alter Hanoch was attached to an elaborate machine, which rang intermittently. I did not see him open his eyes once. Yudi and Ilana went about attending to Alter Hanoch in a totally matter-of-fact fashion, without any sense of being burdened and no trace of a feeling that they had been dealt the short stick in life. Just a normal kollel couple: he an outstanding member of the semicha chabura in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim; she a newly minted masters in special education about to start work.
What I observed that Shabbos was the slightest tip of the iceberg. Alter Hanoch spent most of his life in and out of hospitals, including one stay of seven weeks in a pediatric intensive care unit. During Alter Hanoch's last hospital stay, Reb Aryeh Zev asked the doctor whether he thought he would survive. The doctor hesitated before answering, "I've been in pediatric intensive care for forty years, and only five times have I pronounced a child to have only a short while to live and been wrong. Three of those times have been with this boy." Those instances of beating the odds had a lot to do with the unstinting dedication of Alter Hanoch's parents and grandparents.
After the previously mentioned seven-week stay in the ICU, some of those close to Ilana and Yudi, concerned about the toll on them of repeated lengthy hospital stays, advised them to find an institution that could care for Alter Chanoch. Ilana, who I last met as a bubbly, Miss Popularity seminary girl, rejected the suggestion out of hand. "HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave us this child in this condition. We don't know for how long. But our job is to make sure that he is comfortable and has everything he needs. And we are not giving that job over to anyone else."
Yudi and Ilana's attitude and dedication proved a great Kiddush Hashem. A hundred staff members from the hospital where Alter Chanoch spent much of his life attended his levaya last week. One Jewish doctor, who is married to a non-Jewish woman, told Rabbi Ginzburg, "I met your kids twenty-five years too late. If I had met them then, I might be an Orthodox Jew today."
As Yudi wheeled Alter Hanoch into the hospital for the last time, Alter Hanoch suddenly looked at his father and gave him the biggest "smile" he could. Yudi was so moved that he immediately took out his cellphone and snapped a photo to send to Ilana. That smile expressed two things. First, love to his parents for the love they had showered on him. And second, satisfaction in having completed his mission in life flawlessly.
Alter Chanoch's influence will continue to be felt in his parents' lives and those of his brother Shua and all the siblings to come. He revealed to his parents kochos hanefesh they could not possibly have known they possess, but which will continue to serve them in everything they subsequently do in life.