fairness or freebie?

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-freesampleSome things in life have to be earned, and some things cannot be. We can earn respect and reputation by our behavior, but sometimes we need help, or forgiveness, or just a break, that we haven’t earned and don’t deserve. And we can also give to others gifts they don’t deserve and don’t have to earn. That sort of undeserved kindness is captured by the word Hesed, often translated as lovingkindness.

The Mishnah lists acts of lovingkindness or gemilut hasadim among the good deeds that are not measured or quantified by Torah, but which carry a great reward.

These are the things that have no measure: The corner [of the field], the first-fruits, the appearance [at the Temple on pilgrimage], acts of hesed, and the study of the Torah.

These are things the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world, while the principle remains for him in the World to Come: Honoring father and mother, acts of hesed, and bringing peace between a man and his neighbor. But the study of Torah is equal to them all. M.Peah 1.1

Many acts of hesed aren’t specified in Torah, but are still considered mitzvot worthy of reward. There’s no minimum daily requirement of these acts, so when we do them, we can’t check them off our list of obligations. On a human level we could term them “freebies”—something good we do for others though we’re not obligated to, whether they deserve them or not, and whether they’re likely to return the favor or not.

Thus, when Joseph interprets the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer, he doesn’t ask for the payment he might normally expect for such services, but instead asks for a favor: “But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the hesed of mentioning me to Pharaoh” (40:14). Joseph is careful to establish that he’s innocent and doesn’t belong in prison, so the cupbearer doesn’t need to be afraid of advocating for his release, but he’s asking the cupbearer for a favor, not for justice.

Hesed, by definition, is a freebie. Realizing this fact helps us not only to define the term, but to practice it.

Often, when confronted by a request, or even an unspoken opportunity, to do a good deed, we ask whether the potential recipient deserves it. When we’re about to give responsibility or recognition, this might be the right question. But in many other circumstances it’s the wrong question and misses the point entirely. We often destroy friendship or family ties with a demand for fairness. I’ve seen this happen with married couples, where one partner, or both, feels like the benefits and responsibilities, the work load and the privileges, of their marriage aren’t distributed equally. In such cases I often counsel that the partners think about giving freebies to each other, which means to stop keeping score and demanding fairness, but instead to look for ways to give to the other, whether they think the other deserves it or not. This simple practice can produce some positive marital climate change.

The final appearance of the term hesed in Joseph’s story underscores this truth.

And when the time came near for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, If I have found grace in your sight, and place your hand under my thigh and deal with me in hesed v’emet [lovingkindness and truth]: please do not bury me in Egypt.” (Gen. 47:29)

Rashi comments on the phrase “hesed v’emet” in this verse: “Lovingkindness that is done with the dead is true lovingkindness, for one does not expect any payment or reward.” True hesed is a freebie, and we don’t have to wait until someone is dying to give it. Rather, it’s a way to transform our treatment of the living—and change ourselves in the process.

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