1st Level, for everyone
1. The themes of the parasha
2. Trust in men
3. Spontaneous, disinterested charity, gemilut hassadim
4. The man who represents this quality incarnate
5. Strengthening onself
6. Derekh eretz
7. The source of our strength
8. A wish for everyone
9. An exercise in integration
10. An exercise in memorization
11. Use the dictionary
2nd Level, for advanced students
1. What do the Talmud and the Midrash
say about gemilut hassadim ?
2. What does Rashi say about
gemilut hassadim ?
Themes of the Parasha
- Yaakov asks his son Yosef
to bury him in the Land of Israel.
- He blesses the two sons of Yosef, with the words that
every father uses to bless his children on the eve of
Shabbat (48, 15-16) for this blessing does not arouse
jealousy among heirs despite their different positions.
- Yaakov assembles his children and reveals their destinies
to them, he blesses them, praises them, and warns them
to take heed of their faults. This is the true spiritual
legacy of a father.
- It is said that these twelve children "are"
the twelve tribes (thus we originate from them).
- Yaakov tells them where he wishes to be buried.
- Yaakov's death, his burial in Hebron, the city of our
patriarchs and matriarchs.
- Yosef reassures his brothers and tells them not to fear
from him after his father's death.
- Yosef announces his death and requests that his bones
should be taken out of Egypt. He is buried in Egypt.
The end of a life has a very
important place in this parasha which is the last in the
book of Bereshit.
With this parasha, we end
the study of one of the five books of the Torah. Since
every word, letter, verse and chapter have significance,
here is a table summarizing where we are:
Number of letters, words,
. in Bereshit and in all the Torah
LETTERS WORDS VERSES SECTIONS
Torah 304 805 79 847 5 845 187
Bereshit 78 064 20 512 1 534 50
Summary of the meaning
of the book of Bereshit
From the beginning of the book
1. We have witnessed many
conflicts, defeats and trials centered around the fundamentals
2. We have learnt how to understand the meaning of these
3. We have learnt how to overcome these successive trials;
4. And, in the preceding parasha, we discovered the key
which consists in a total, unequivocal trust in Hashem,
Trust in men
5. This parasha, the last
of the book which completes the teaching of the Torah
on these fundamentals of existence, teaches us about total
trust in the goodness of others and assures us that the
rule which will govern our relations with our fellow men
will be gemilut hassadim. How do we learn this?
The end of a life is central
to the whole of this parasha which is the last in the
book of Bereshit.
Yaakov, in a state of absolute
weakness and absolute dependence, which is the condition
of each human being as he approaches the end of his life,
begs his son to ensure him dignity in death and the only
guarantee he has is that Yosef will be a good man.
* "If now I have found
favor in thy sight, I pray thee" (what a humiliation
to have to address one's children with so much care and
* "put thy hand under
my thigh" (an act with which one swears to carry
out what one promises, since a promise in itself is not
a sufficient guarantee: another proof of Yaakov's total
* "And deal kindly and
truly with me" (an appeal to the highest, most ideal
qualities and duties of the other, that is of his son)
* "Bury me not, I pray
thee, in Egypt. But when I sleep with my fathers, thou
shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place"
in Hebron (finally, after his moving and painful entreaties,
Yaakov is able to ask his request)
* he adds: "Swear unto
me" (as if all this were not enough); and Yosef "swore
unto him" (note that Yosef did not himself propose
carrying out everything he said he would do).
Does this scene represent an episode that painful to witness,
or does it represent an episode that shows the right way
of ensuring an old person's dignity, by letting him express
his wishes and desires?
These different options should
be reflected on.
Spontaneous and disinterested
kindness, gemilut hassadim
This scene teaches us a "midda"
(an essential quality in human conduct): Yosef will carry
out with "disinterested kindness" the request
and desire of his weak and dying father: this is gemilut
hassadim -- a kind and disinterested act that brings spiritual
or physical comfort to another person and which one carries
out without that person's knowledge, without his demanding
it, and with no assurance whatsoever of recompense.
This is the sign of true love,
and should be shown every time that someone is really
in need of emotional, material, physical, moral or spiritual
comfort. This mitzva consists in "acting towards
someone else with kindness and integrity."
The prototypal act of gemilut
The most disinterested and prototypal act is the kindness
one must show towards a dying person for there will be
no words of thanks in return: veassita imadi hessed veemet
(deal kindly and truly with, hessed veemet). This is explained
in Bereshit Rabba 96 and by Rashi on Bereshit 47, 29:
these last two words hessed veemet are part of 13 middot
or characteristics of Hashem's (Shemot 34, 6-7); this
shows to importance of this quality, and its divine character.
In this way, man resembles
his creator who made him in His image and in His likeness.
Gathering one's strength (hithazekut)
Yaakov the patriarch senses
his life is at an end. He is weak and exhausted: and a
few moments later, he dies. In between, he teaches us
a lesson in courage and shows us how to confront the small
trials of life:
- he dares to ask his son
to carry out his wishes, then he dares to take every precaution
to ensure that that his wishes are respected.
- when his son Yosef comes
to him, Yaakov is at his most spiritual, he is "Israel."
- moreover, he "strengthens
himself" in the reflexive form of the verb veyithazek,
and he sits up on his bed, he strives to be dignified,
he wants his words to be respected, even if his physical
strength is waning.
The Baal Haturim notes that
even when the righteous, the tzaddikim, are weak, they
strive to be strong, while bad people, the reshaim, like
Haman (Book of Esther), let themselves go even when they
We should remember each one
of these teachings when we confront the trials of life,
which are but brief passages compared to this moment in
Tractate Berakhot, page 32
b, elaborates on the quality of strengthening oneself
(hithazekut) which is demanded by the Torah.
" it notes to what extent
Moshe devoted himself to prayer, so much so that God said
to him in the end, according to the midrash: "your
words made me alive again," vehiyetani videvarekha.
This is so, even if extensive and unending prayers are
not recommended for they can exhaust the body.
" the Torah is a tree
of life not for those who only study it, but for those
who study and apply it, and keep to it (Mishle, Proverbs
" Ribbi Hama bar Hanina
said that if a prayer has not be answered, it should be
repeated, in keeping with Psalm 27, 14: "Wait on
Hashem, be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine
heart: wait, I say, on Hashem" kave el Hashem hazek
veyaametz libekha vekave el Hashem.
" the Sages taught that
there are 4 things which require us to strengthen ourselves,
inmour bodies and in our hearts (arbaa tzrikhim hizuk):
the Torah, the mitzvot, prayer and derekh eretz, the courtesy
and respect towards others. They cite the relevant verses:
for derekh eretz it is II Samuel 10, 12: "Be of good
courage and let us prove strong for our people" (hazak
venithazak bead amenu).
This shows us
" that the quality of
derekh eretz (courtesy and respect towards others as a
social rule that must be strictly adhered to), which Yaakov
teaches us at this moment, is neither easy or spontaneous;
" that it is essential
since it is placed together with the Torah, the mitzvot
" that our people have
a vital need for this quality.
This self-strengthening (hithazekut) is therefore an imperative
obligation for us, even if it requires unstinting efforts:
the conduct of our patriarch Yaakov and the great efforts
he made at the end of his life, at the moment of greatest
weakness, should be an example to us.
The source of our strength
Some commentators believe
that one of the symbols of the strength, fortitude and
courage of our patriarchs is in the fact that their emblems
are, for the most part, animals. Indeed, Tractate Sotah
11 b, notes that the Hebrew midwives in Egypt told Pharoah
that their women give birth quickly and without difficulty
because the Jewish people are like wild animals (hayot).
E. Munk notes that the Jewish nation, according to Rabbi
Shmuel Edels (the Maharsha, 1555-1631), survives "like
forces of nature that have never been tarred by society
and civilization," and like wild animals. This internal
strength, which is constant and immovable by nature, is
seen in the animal kingdom and rarely in humankind. It
is a characteristic of the Jewish people.
We must wish, following the
example of the patriarchs, that we too will know how to
use this indomitable strength in the service of derekh
eretz, even if it is arduous, as the text, which knows
man well, teaches us.
One reason is enough to compel
us to do so: it is that our people need this strength,
as is written in II Samuel 10, 12,
and God himself
needs humankind as he told Moshe (Berakhot 32 b): "you
made me alive again through your words," vehiyetani
A wish for everyone
That we may say, all of us,
at the end of a life together, like Yosef at the end of
this parasha, after receiving the teaching of his father:
I received the teaching of
Yaakov avinu, I listened to it, I practiced it throughout
It would then be much easier
to live for the needy, if one adhered to this ethos which
is a fundamental tenet of Judaism, and is taught throughout
the Book of Bereshit.
I was able to write this commentary
because I received this teaching through the example of
my masters. This is what is called in Judaism the indispensable
shimush, which means the study of Torah through the observation
of a master who has understood the different levels of
knowledge and who puts them into practice as much as he
studies them. It is a gift to learn through such a person
how to harmonize the different levels of knowledge, how
to understand and apply them. My gratitude and affection
for these modest and devoted masters is unbounded.
They are many in Judaism who
teach gemilut hassadim in this way, who "run after
the needy" as is written in our texts, and who give
them what they need, at great cost to themselves.
It is forbidden to teach only
Torah, to teach it only in theory, without teaching shimush,
May all the good that comes
out of this study return as a blessing to the men and
women who taught me the importance of this midda, through
their lives and especially their quiet way of carrying
out this midda. They understood the meaning of the silence
which reigns over the Song of Songs, Shir Hashirim. The
heart knows and understands even if it cannot see and
cannot be seen, halev yodea umistakel bo af al pi she
eino nire klal (Zohar Shir Hashirim).
Exercise in integration
In summary, we must try to
understand the teachings of the parasha in relation to
our own lives:
Do we devote anonymously (for
this is required) a part of our time, our money, our thoughts
to gemilut hassadim ? Do we give, without counting, our
time, money, possessions simply because we see that a
person is needy, will never obtain them and is in danger
of his life.
This is a duty for all Jews.
It is not a luxury to be indulged in by the "rich
and those who find happiness in giving." It is a
fundamental duty and a fundamental basis of functioning
of the world in which we have been invited by Hashem and
He himself gives to us benevolently.
And do we dare to do it, particularly
when we know it is difficult, complicated, that it is
hard to part with something, that the other person may
not appreciate it, may not understand, may never know,
but simply because it is a duty and because it is critical
for the other person?
Clearly this Jewish way of
behaving will never be understood and will seem strange
and suspect, even causing difficulties for it is not the
norm in a cruel world which despises those who do not
follow the rules of a society based on success, but follow
the benevolent rules of Avraham, Hashem and Judaism. It
will even happen that those who live this way will be
attacked, as when Jews are attacked for carrying the Torah
for it is seen as a symbol of reproach and humiliation
of others, and it is true that others do not often behave
The argument most often used
against those who give, whether individual Jews or the
Jewish people, is that they wish to dominate or to create
The view from the other side
It could be that Hashem places
each of us, in turn, in the position of a person who is
in absolute need of gemilut hassadim, as Rashi notes on
Bereshit 29, 11 and 43, 20. This is a way of making us
sensitive to the needy, to being totally dependent on
Hashem and of letting others show this midda towards us.
Nonetheless, the suffering is intolerable, and this is
the trial which the patriarchs, David and Job all endured.
It is also a supreme quality
to be able to be humble and to accept help without being
aggressive to those who themselves may feel humiliated
in giving, in an unequal relationship.
Exercise in memorization
"veassita imdi hessed
deal kindly and truly with me" (Bereshit 47, 30).
for advanced students
who will refer to the sources
What do the Talmud and the
Midrash say about gemilut hassadim ?
1. Its nature and importance
" together with tzedaka,
it is equal in weight to all the mitzvot put together
(Tosefta Pea, 4).
" it is dearer to the heart of Hashem (haviva) than
tzedaka (Yerushalmi Pea 1).
" it is the Torah from the beginning to the end (Talmud
Sotah 14 a)
" the world is based on it (Bereshit Rabba 8)
" the world rests on 3 things (the Torah, the sacrifices-prayers)
and gemilut hassadim (Pirkei Avot 1).
" this is what Pharoah's daughter Bitia did when
she saved Moshe, and for this she deserves more than him
(Shemot Rabba 1).
2. This is what defines the
children of Israel:
-- mercy (rahamim), the ability
to admit one's faults (mitbayeshim) and gemilut hassadim
(Tractate Yevamot 79 a).
3. How to carry it out ?
-- the way to do gemilut hassadim
is to run after the needy, shekhen darko shel gomel hassadim
larutz ahar dalim (Tractate Shabbat 104 a).
4. And if one doesn't ?
-- he who devotes himself
only to Torah (without gemilut hassadim), is as one who
does not have a God (Tractate Avodah Zarah).
5. The effect of gemilut hassadim
" it brings happiness
even in the midst of sorrows (Tractate Avodah Zarah 5
" it will help to prevent suffering during the period
of the coming of the Mashiah (Tractate Sanhedrin 98 b).
" it makes one live in the shadow of God (Yerushalmi
" it brings the rain of life to the world (Yerushalmi
" with tzedaka, it brings dignity (kavod), succor,
and life itself (Tractate Kiddushin 40 a).
" it prolongs life (Yerushalmi Pea 1).
What does Rashi say about
gemilut hassadim ?
Refer to Rashi's commentaries
on the following verses of the Torah and study them together
with the text of the Torah:
" Bereshit 18, 16: "it
is the power of giving to the poor which transforms divine
anger into rahamim" (mercy).
" Bereshit 28, 20: "he who is reduced to begging
for bread, is called abandonned," (commentary on
Yaakov's vow: if God will give me bread to eat).
" Bereshit 29, 11: "a poor person must be considered
as a dead person" (thus to leave him in need, is
to kill him). Rashi elaborates on the same idea for Shemot
" Shemot 22, 24-26: read this passage and all of
Rashi's commentary which shows how we can easily do mortal
harm to a poor person and how a small slight can eventually
completely destroy him.
" Vayikra 25, 35: this is the same idea in reverse
; when poverty erupts, we have the power to stop it easily
(and thus, the obligation) and if we do not do this, the
situation will then become irreversible and we will be
responsible for causing the downfall of the poor person,
for we could have stopped it. The poor person knows that
we have the power to save him and he suffers from this,
and looks on those who are indifferent and feel no guilt
as people who are killing him, and this is true.
" Bamidbar 5, 10: he who does not give the maasar
(the obligatory 10% of one's earnings and possessions),
has kept it for himself (and would seem to profit by it),
but his fortune will in fact depreciate by 10% in other
" Bamidbar 29, 11: (commentary on: I will give you
my covenant of peace) "Just as we forcefully express
our gratitude towards someone who has done us good."
This teaches us that a poor person who has been helped
is obligated not to be aggressive towards his benefactor
but must show the same genuine gratefulness as towards
Hashem. Why? Because it is Hashem who gives to us and
because it is from Him that we received everything, so
that everyone would have the opportunity of giving freely
and generously according to each person's means. The aggressiveness
that often emerges later, under the pretext of not wanting
to be dependent (to which we referred above) is understandable
psychologically in people who have been hurt and misunderstood
the relationship, but it is an injustice and a direct
act of ungratefulness towards Hashem.) This is also an
" Read Devarim 15, 7 to the end of the section and
" "many hesitate,
many begin then stop giving;"
" "as He is merciful, rahum, so must you be,
and as he does gemilut hassadim, so like Him, you must
" "first give to the poorest
and the poor
person who is near to us has precedence over the poor
person who lives far to receive our gifts."
" "if you do not give to the poor, you will
" Devarim 15, 8: "thou
shalt open thine hand wide unto him" (this counters
the way in which we often persuade ourselves not to give,
by claiming that it is against Judaism because Judaism
teaches us to be balanced and cautious.)
The meaning of success in
It is clear that success in
Judaism has little in common with the modern concept of
"success," which is based on the vaunting of
one's financial success and on boastful exhibitionism.
Success in Judaism is definitely
not this: it consists in studying the example of the patriarchs
who, rich or poor, according to what Hashem grants, conduct
themselves in the image of Hashem and according to the
obligatory law that one must help to end the suffering
of the poor, with the greatest sensitivity.
This why when one gives, priority
should be accorded to Torah institutions, for through
their teaching they help to increase the number of those
This is the reason why the
great Sages of the Torah always condemned the financial
excesses invested in marriage and bar-mitzva ceremonies,
for these monies can be given to the poor without in anyway
affecting the holy quality of these ceremonies, which
are necessary and obligatory.
Refer to the study on dibbur hamathil in Lev Gompers.