My friend Moshe was driving on a busy street one day when suddenly, the car in front of him came to a sudden stop. Moshe slammed on his brakes, avoiding a serious collision by a couple of inches. Thinking the worst, that a child had run out in front of the car, my friend bounded from his car to see if he could help. No child in sight. What just happened? The driver rolled down his window and said, “I’m sorry I had to stop. A squirrel ran in front of my car and I didn’t want to harm it.” My friend was incredulous. “But you almost killed me and my family! I almost slammed right into your car and we all could have died!”
The driver had good intentions to not run over a squirrel, but common sense tells us that it does not justify risking human life to save an animal. Kindness to animals is praiseworthy, but in this case, it was dangerous and irresponsible.
Avraham was the paradigm of chesed (kindness.) The Jewish nation possesses this trait-it’s passed down in the DNA of every Jew from Avraham, our patriarch. Avraham perfected his own attribute of chesed by doing chesed whenever possible, such as running to greet unknown guests to serve them his best delicacies. Further, he shared with everyone he met about the kindness that Hashem showers upon man and the need to thank Him.
The Mishnah in Avos tells us Avraham was tried with ten tests. While one would assume these would all be designed to fine-tune his chesed, most of them involved challenging Avraham to perform activities contradictory to chesed. The test of Lech Lecha had Avraham move away from his family, his hometown and the people he loved and cared for. The test of Avraham fighting against the four mighty kings to save Lot his cousin, involved killing people in war. Hashem instructed Avraham to circumcise himself, which set Avraham apart from the rest of mankind, jeopardizing his ability to connect to others, since they would now view Avraham as markedly different from themselves. He was challenged to divorce Hagar and send her away along with his own son, Yishmael. The last and hardest of all the tests was the Akeidas Yitzchak, in which he would sacrifice his own son — the total opposite of kindness!!
Why would Hashem test Avraham to act in ways seemingly contrary to the quality of chesed he was developing and perfecting?
Rav Dessler enlightens us that any quality pushed to an extreme is dangerous. Indeed, the chesed of Avraham needed to be balanced. Chesed without boundaries can lead to giving away more money than one can afford. It can lead one to aid cruel people. A giver may choose to borrow money to give away and not have the means to pay it back. A person with unchecked chesed may give money to an addict to fill his destructive need.
Avraham was instructed by Hashem to perform acts we may perceive as the opposite of chesed, to ensure that his chesed would be performed subject to the will of Hashem. Indeed, Hashem was perfecting Avraham’s chesed, for kindness performed out of the realm of mitzvos is a corruption of chesed.
I had a conversation with a Jew who owns a private plane. He is a caring person and belongs to a group called Angel Flights that provide free air transportation to qualifying patients and their families by arranging flights to distant medical facilities, delivering supplies to disaster areas, and reuniting families during desperate times. These pilots volunteer their time, services, and the flight expense to transport these patients or family members for free to the location they need. This person told me he often spends his weekends, including Shabbos, volunteering to fly. Although these flights are solely for non-life-threatening situations and he knows the Torah does not permit it, he feels performing these acts of kindness is what Hashem wants more than keeping the laws of Shabbos.
This man’s actions are noble and generous, but not in tune with the will of the Almighty. Hashem does not want him to fly on Shabbos; that is not the chesed Hashem wants him to perform, unless it is halachically mandated.
Hashem was teaching Avraham that even though his desire to perform acts of chesed is genuine and admirable, his performance of chesed must always be under the umbrella of Hashem’s laws and direction. Without this, a person could save the life of a squirrel and kill an entire family, chas v’shalom. What is kind…and what is not…must always be rooted in the Torah’s teachings.