Chayei Sarah: ‘Yeshivat Chessed’

Yeshivat Chessed was famous in its district for two main reasons. Firstly it was well-known for being the tidiest, cleanest Yeshivah that could be imagined. Upon entering the Beit HaMidrash, the study hall, a visitor would be struck with how the desks were in perfectly neat rows, books on shelves were arranged in a most orderly fashion and there was not a speck of dust to be found anywhere. Such order was most unusual in Yeshivas which was why Yeshivat Chessed had become particularly well-known for the pride it took in its appearance.

The second cause of the Yeshivah’s fame was its annual chessed competition. Each year there was a competition amongst all of the bachurim which involved displaying the greatest acts of chessed, kindness, of which they were capable. It did not matter if this chessed were displayed towards fellow bachurim, rabbis, or members of the local community. The chessed competition was the biggest, most exciting event in the Yeshivah’s calendar (aside from chagim), and was always eagerly awaited by the bachurim, their teachers and many people outside the Yeshivah too.

One year, around the time that the date for the competition would usually be announced, the Rosh Yeshivah called everyone into the Beit HaMidrash before delivering the following announcement:

“Sadly, it has come to my attention of late that our bachurim are slacking in respect to ‘mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro’, mitzvot involving actions between one person and his fellow. Our Yeshiva particularly should be setting an example in this area. Yet there have been many occasions when I myself have had to settle quarrels between bachurim or simply remind bachurim of the correct way to behave. There is no excuse for neglecting simple ‘derech eretz’. It is easy to say ‘please’ and just as easy to say ‘thank you’. There is no great effort involved in holding a door open for someone, nor in returning another person’s book once you no longer need it. Unfortunately, however, many are not paying attention to such small yet important examples of ‘derech eretz’, proper behaviour.

I have decided, therefore, that extra work is needed this year in order to strengthen our commitment to acting kindly towards others. This year’s chessed competition will be longer than the usual two or three days. Beginning tomorrow all bachurim will spend thirty full days concentrating almost solely on helping other people, with just a two hour ‘night seder’, evening Torah learning session every day in order to ensure that our studies are not neglected.

Finally, in order to demonstrate to ourselves that we are making a serious attempt to change our ways we will hold a ‘mishmar’, all night learning session prior to the announcement of this year’s winners. May Hashem help our efforts to be successful.”

With these words the Rosh Yeshivah stepped down, returned to his shtender and continued learning from a large, yellowed sefer. As the chanting of Torah study started up again in the crowded Beit HaMidrash smiling faces could not hide the general excitement at the prospect of a month long chessed competition.

The following morning all the bachurim began to consider what might be the most productive way to spend the next month. No individual bachur could think of how he would fill thirty days with acts of chessed and small groups began to form in order for the young men to work on ideas together.

One of these groups had an idea which became very popular and had soon been accepted by everyone. Over the next thirty days, various schemes and activities were to be devised for raising money for tzedakah. The winners of the competition would be those who had donated the largest sums to worthy causes.

The bachurim went their separate ways and frantically began to plan strategies for raising money. In a short time many interesting endeavours were making the Yeshiva and the local town buzz with activity. These were second-hand book sales, sponsored sports activities, cookery contests, craft fairs, and various lectures with entrance fees. There were various workshops set up, where furniture, bicycles, clothes, shoes, books and many other articles were repaired. On the nearby river there were boat rides, and model yacht races. Some bachurim simply took jobs in shops and restaurants, putting aside all of their earnings for tzedakah.

Towards the end of the month, each bachur decided what he was going to do with the money he had made. Donations were made to hospitals, schools, and day centres for the elderly. Toys were bought for children of poor families. Funds were begun for providing the poor with proper Shabbat and Yom Tov meals. Many books, desks, shtenders, garments for Sifrei Torah and white Shabbat tablecloths were bought for the Yeshivah.

This had been a most successful competiton. Many people had benefited from all the money that had been raised and the bachurim were all very pleased with themselves.

The all-night learning session arrived. There was an excited tension in the Beit HaMidrash. Everyone had worked on the competition as hard as each other and there was no way of knowing who was going to be announced as the winner. As the night drew on the familiar hum of learning activity returned to full stength.

In the early hours of the morning people from the town began to file into the Beit HaMidrash and very soon there was standing room only. All of these visitors were as excited as the bachurim to know who had won. However, as the townsfolk walked through the door of Yeshivat Chessed they were struck by something peculiar. Books appeared disorganised on shelves, the desks were not in straight rows, and shtenders were placed haphazzardly around the room. This was a disappointing sight for those who had been looking forward to seeing the neatness for which the Yeshivah was renowned. Nevertheless, the Yeshivah’s tidiness or otherwise was not uppermost in people’s minds at this time, for the big moment was only a few hours away.

It seemed as if morning was purposely taking its time to arrive, until the Gabbai slammed his hand down on the large reading desk in the middle of the room to indicate that it was time for Shacharit. Just before the davening began the Rosh Yeshivah instructed all those present that nothing should interfere with their concentration, with the result that Shacharit was much the same length as usual.

The final kaddish was recited, tefillin and tallitot were respectfully wound, folded and packed away and seats were taken as the Rosh Yeshivah walked calmly towards the raised pulpit, normally used only by visiting rabbis and other notable speakers. He paused for half a second before ascending the three, small, carpeted steps. Once he had taken his position the noise level fell to a whisper; every pair of eyes was transfixed on this one, slightly bent figure whose pure, holy features now shone with a knowing smile.

“We have all been waiting for this moment for a long time so I shall not stretch your patience much further. It has been a most exciting competition and everyone is to be congratulated for his own efforts.

The judges, though taking a number of factors into account, found it an almost impossible task to decide upon winners, since all of the final donations were so generous and went to such a wide variety of worthy causes. We eventually decided, therefore, that only names should be announced, with no reasons or explanations given for our choices.”

The Rosh Yeshivah looked down, put on his glasses, then looked up again as he lifted a piece of paper in front of his face.

“Each of the following young men shall receive a book voucher, redeemable at ‘Moshe’s Sefarim’ in the town centre.

First of all, the third prize goes to Yossi Abrahams. Well done, Yossi, mazal tov!”

Yossi Abrahams collected an envelope from the Rosh Yeshivah and returned to his seat. Yitzchak Eliezer followed, and Levy Katz was delighted to have won the first prize.

Normally, the handing of the first prize to the winner would mark the end of the competition. However, as Levy Katz returned to his seat, another seat scraped backwards as the Mashgiach stood up and marched towards the Rosh Yeshivah. Both Rabbis whispered to each other for several minutes, though it was clearly the Mashgiach who had the most to say. Indeed, when they had finished the Rosh Yeshivah stepped down and motioned with both arms outstretched that the Mashgiach should take his place.

Nobody knew what was happening. All three prizes had been collected, yet it appeared that the Mashgiach was not fully content with the outcome. As he began to speak, himself in the pulpit now, there was no one in the Beit HaMidrash who could possibly have expected what he was going to say.

“Whilst we heartily congratulate the three young men who have just collected their prizes, the Rosh Yeshivah has permitted me to announce an even higher award. In doing so I must, regrettably, admonish our bachurim for deceiving both themselves and many people outside the Yeshivah.

We have become well known and highly respected for being clean and tidy, orderly and organised; however, I ask you now to look around the room. Our visitors will have noticed that our Beit HaMidrash is not the tidy, shining place they had expected to see. Think! What is different about this morning? It is that we have been here all night long! Let me explain further.

Each evening, once the last bochur has left his desk and begun to make his way to the dormitories, one quiet, humble, diligent soul yet remains behind for the first few hours of the night. Shimon, who sits almost unnoticed in the badly lit corner at the back of the Beit HaMidrash, waits in his place until he is alone before beginning his work. He then takes his brush, broom, and duster, and begins to sweep, gather, straighten, wipe, polish and fold. Not until all desks are in perfect rows, sefarim are in their correct places on shelves and the silver in the Aron HaKodesh is sparkling like new does Shimon down his tools and go to his own bed. When the bachurim arrive for Shacharit in the morning nobody even wonders at how all of this came to be and Shimon is happy not to be discovered.

Now you should all understand why the Beit HaMidrash does not look as it usually would at this time in the morning. It is because the all-night learning has not left Shimon any opportunity to perform his secret mitzvah! I must apologise to Shimon for embarrassing him, for I know that he would prefer to remain anonymous. Nevertheless, he has long deserved proper recognition and we have therefore decided that he should be the true winner of this year’s chessed competition!

If you are at all surprised by this,” the Mashgiach continued,

“my final remarks should help you to understand why this is a fair decision. The awards which were given earlier, to Levy, Yitzchak and Yossi, were really for a tzedakah competition. Of course, tzedakah is itself a most important mitzvah, and is indeed a form of chessed, but our competition has always been about making personal, physical efforts to help others. Raising money to help others is different from providing help with your own, personal energies. In addition, not one of the activities organised for raising tzedakah over the last thirty days actually involved acts of chessed in itself, and so none of the bachurim’s physical efforts over the course of the competition could really be described as having involved any real chessed.

Shimon, however, has all the while continued to perform his secret work of true chessed, a simple chessed, exerting his energies night after night in order to ensure that all those who use the Beit HaMidrash daily can do so with ease, and in pleasant surroundings.”

Shimon was later awarded with a prize of his own, a small bookcase, engraved with the words,

“Awarded to Shimon, with thanks for his secret kindness from the whole of Yeshivat Chessed,”

***

We are told by our great Rabbis of blessed memory that ‘the actions of the fathers are lessons for the children.’ Simply taking careful note of how our Avot and Imahot behaved becomes a most important form of instruction in how we should lead our own lives.

In Parashat Chayei Sara, the ‘middah’ of ‘chessed’, lovingkindness, is learnt from Rivkah Imeinu. Rivkah responded to the request for water from Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, by drawing water not only for Eliezer himself, but also for his camels!

“And she said: ‘Drink, my lord’; and she hurried, and let down her jug upon her hand, and gave him drink, she said: ‘I will draw for your camels also, until they have had enough to drink.’ Then she hurried, and emptied her jug into the trough, and ran again to the well to draw, and drew for all his camels.” (Bereishit 24; 18-20)

Shimon, in our story, was awarded the real first prize in recognition of his great yet modest personal, physical efforts to do good for others. This is perhaps the greatest lesson of the passage above from our sedra: that true chessed involves actively doing good for others, employing your own efforts and strengths, going out of your way even until you become quite tired. How hot Rivkah must have been under the desert sun and how exhausting it must have been to walk countless times back and forth from well to trough, carrying heavy ceramic jugs full of water.

Yet Rivkah did all of this gladly. We learn from her, therefore, not only how chessed is properly done, but that it should be done with enthusiasm, in the true spirit of  “ve’ahavta lereiacha kamocha”  –

“You must love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Vayikra 19; 18)

© J. Richards 2004

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