When thinking about the types of kindness in our world, we may be drawn to the little things: holding open a door for the next person, giving a few coins or bills for Tzedakah, making eye-contact and offering a genuine “thank you.” Or perhaps what rises for us are higher-effort tasks: bringing food to someone homebound, visiting a sick neighbor in the hospital, raising money for an important cause. Maybe, we arrive at what is coined as the ultimate kindness – the act of burial. Tending to the needs of the departed, showing up and accompanying them to their final resting place: tasks described in our community as a chesed shel emet – a true kindness.
This phrase, chesed shel emet is in fact drawn from this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, when Ya’akov initially requests of Yosef to not bury him in Egypt, but rather return him back to Eretz Cana’an where he will lay beside his ancestors. He combines these two words, chesed and emet (Genesis 47):
(כט)וַיִּקְרְבוּ יְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָמוּת וַיִּקְרָא לִבְנוֹ לְיוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ שִׂים נָא יָדְךָ תַּחַת יְרֵכִי וְעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת אַל נָא תִקְבְּרֵנִי בְּמִצְרָיִם.
(ל) וְשָׁכַבְתִּי עִם אֲבֹתַי וּנְשָׂאתַנִי מִמִּצְרַיִם וּקְבַרְתַּנִי בִּקְבֻרָתָם וַיֹּאמַר אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ.
Yisrael’s time to die drew near, and he called for his son, for Yosef, and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh, and deal with me with true kindness. Please, do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers,1 you shall carry me from Egypt and bury me in their grave.” He said, “I will do as you have spoken.”
The medieval commentator Rashi picks up on the language and explains:
חסד שעושין עם המתים הוא חסד של אמת, שאינו מצפה לתשלום גמול.
Kindness that is done for the dead is a true kindness, as one does not expect anything in return.
At first, Rashi’s explanation offers an inspiring view of the great kindness of burial, of being present for the departed. As a community, we show up for members of our family, community, and Am Yisrael at funerals, burials, and shivas – and this is truly a beautiful, and one-directional act. There is no expectation of anything in return.
And yet, Rashi’s comments imply a somewhat bleak, utilitarian understanding of most kindness – I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. If I am nice to you today, perhaps you’ll return the favor tomorrow. Ya’akov, knowing that this is the way of the world, reinforces his monumental request with the simple language – a true kindness, one that transcends the possibility of repayment, one that breaks the typical pattern of giving and receiving.
Rav Shmuel David Luzatto, (19th century Italian scholar known as שד״ל – “Shadal”) offers an alternative possibility, one that allows us to see general acts of kindness as altruistic. He says:
חסד ואמת – מעשה של אהבה ושל אמונה, והאמונה היא שתשמור לי חסדך גם אחרי מותי.
Kindness and Truth: An act of love and faith. And the faith is that you should keep your kindness for me, even after I die.
Shadal suggests that the “truth” here is not a qualitative descriptor of the kindness, but rather recognizing how much faith is required when Ya’akov makes this ask of Yosef. This faith is necessary, as Ya’akov, will of course, never know if his request is fulfilled. Emet here implies a type of integrity, of commitment, of following through on what he agrees to.
This idea resonates with the bravery required for every act of kindness. Each time we are good to someone, and allow ourselves to receive from others, it is a deep act of commitment and faith, of trust (rather than truth!).
And yet, the truth is, that this is not the first time Ya’akov has used this phrase. Back in Parashat Vayishlach, in the hours before encountering his brother Esav, Ya’akov offers this prayer (Genesis 32):
קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל־הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּךָ…
I am too small for all the kindness and all the truth faithfulness that you did for your servant.
Ya’akov recognizes that all the good he has received from God was in essence, an act of trust. A faithful follow-through of God’s early commitments to Ya’akov – that he is worthy of carrying the responsibilities and receiving the blessings of his ancestors. And when Ya’akov asks Yosef to treat him with a trusting kindness — he is asking Yosef to be Godlike, to act with integrity and commitment after he dies.
Ya’akov’s word choice reminds us that the act of showing up and being kind, for both the dead and the living, is a bold, Godly behavior. One that requires belief and trust for both the giver and the receiver: the underpinnings of an honest relationship.
In these dark days, when we are surrounded by the death and destruction of so many loved ones, neighbors of friends, friends of neighbors, and the peoples in our holy land – we must dig deep into our tradition and into our hearts to uncover and perform that Godly faith in one another.