Abraham’s most prominent virtue is loving kindness, or “chesed” in Hebrew. We read about two events in this week’s Torah reading that exemplify this. At the beginning of the Parsha, Abraham greets strangers passing by his tent and extends his hospitality toward them. He not only runs out to welcome his guests and invite them to sit down, but he also goes out of his way to provide them a complete freshly prepared meal, as well as a place to wash up.
Immediately following, we are told the story of Sodom and Gomorah. God tells Abraham that these cities have been acting in a horrible fashion, and deserve to be destroyed. Abraham responds in a remarkable way; he actually argues with God, hoping that somehow he can convince God to save the lives of the sinners. Abraham convinces God that even if there are only 10 good men, these cities should not be destroyed, but sadly, these cities are empty of righteousness.
In these two stories we see what loving kindness is supposed to be. Abraham’s kindness was directed not at close friends and family, but at strangers in the fullest sense of the word. Not only were the people he reaches out to people he doesn’t know, but in the case of Sodom, he’s reaching out to people who are very different than him, and whose values are the opposite of his. Abraham models the true meaning of kindness; not only how to like friends, but also how to embrace strangers. It is easy to help those closest to us, but it’s a challenge when dealing with people who take us out of our comfort zone.
Abraham’s moral compass always followed the direction of kindness, and kindness is his enduring legacy.
When I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before I met my husband, I was approached by a friend to join a group that visited sick people in the hospital. I remember feeling completely frightened and inadequate. What would I say to a total stranger? What if s/he was having a bad day and didn’t want a visitor? My friend reassured me that the first time would be difficult, but if I just stayed for a short time and let the patient guide the conversation, I could get through it. I summoned up all my courage and went to visit an elderly man, a complete stranger, who was quite ill. I explained that I was just coming to visit to say hello and that if he wasn’t up to it, I wouldn’t stay. But in the end, he asked about my life, and we chatted about his family. The visit only took a few minutes. And as I left, he thanked me for coming. I remember feeling both relieved and proud.
Going out of your comfort zone, is something we all need to think about if we want to grow in terms of kindness. Many of us who are faced with similar situations ignore our challenges. We need to believe in the power of kindness, including extending kindness to the people and strangers with whom we are not comfortable.