From my teachers in yeshiva, I heard many ideas, thoughts and concepts. One of the ideas that I think about and continue to be inspired by time and again has to do with the general topic of chesed – acts of kindness. It must first be prefaced that yeshiva is a place that generally promotes, reinforces and emphasizes the primacy of Torah study and intellect, even over other mitzvos and other constructive interests and preoccupations. In this milieu, those few yeshiva teachers that stressed the importance of helping others – doing chesed – were somewhat counter-cultural vis-à-vis their colleagues, since chesed often must be done at the expense of Torah study. But the teachers that went so far to claim that the greatest Torah scholars with the most legendary intellects also spent the most time worrying about and helping the less fortunate, were visionaries and their teachings still inspire me.
For the most dedicated traditional-Torah academics, there is no ivory tower. There is no aloofness from the amecha – the rank and file of the people. The pairing of Torah excellence and chesed was personified by R. Chaim Soloveitchik (1853 – 1918). He was the greatest Torah scholar of his generation and the most innovative in several generations, but nevertheless his house was open to all to the extent that it became a public thoroughfare where notices and advertisements were posted. The extent that he went to to help even those oppositional to traditional observance was legendary. It should not be surprising then, that he also spoke about the topic of chesed at the expense of Torah study with trademark clarity and wit. I recently found a story in which he poetically and powerfully expressed his thoughts on the matter.
One time several rabbis were meeting together at R. Chaim Soloveitchik’s home, and one thing they spoke about was Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meisel from Lodz. One of the rabbis said that it’s true that R. Meisel spearheads much tzedaka and does a lot of chesed, but it has resulted in his neglect of his Torah scholarship [and, apparently, this was relevant to the conversation for some reason]. When R. Chaim heard this, he became very upset and declared:
“A rabbi that doesn’t close his Gemara to do tzedaka and chesed – even when the Gemara is open in front of him, it’s as if it’s closed. However the converse is also true – a rabbi that does close his Gemara to do tzedaka and chesed, even when it’s closed, it’s as if it’s open!¹”
R. Chaim’s ancestor, the great R. Chaim Volozhin, also emphasized chesed in an extreme way. See the details in a prior post here.
I haven’t begun to live up to this ideal, but it is the goal that I will always shoot for.
¹ Technical details: This episode is related by R. Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, in his Shiurim on the Torah (end of Parashas Eikev), in the name of his father R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik. He explains that normally interruptions disturb one’s learning since it takes a while to regain concentration. In this case, however, since the interruption was for the sake of a mitzvah that was necessary to perform, the person will, via divine assistance, not need to invest time to reorient himself in the learning topic because the mitzvah performance is in sync with it.