For those keeping up with the saga of my son Shmuel and his encounter with modern dentistry, last Sunday and Mondary mornings, it was back to the dentist--this time the Pediatric Emergency Dental Clinic at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. The care was excellent, though we were told that Shmuel may need general anesthetic for further treatment. And we were also told--in a nice Kafka-esque (read Israeli) twist--that Shmuel requires the treatment in the next few months or so, but that the waiting list for that treatment is eight months. In any event, it's an eventuality we want to avoid; so we are considering our options. As I said in a comment in a previous posting: gulp...
Which goes back to my daughter Avital, and her show of chesed (mercy or loving kindness) for her brother, particularly her pleas to the dentist that he refrain from pulling Shmuel's tooth. In hindsight, while admirable in an abstract sense, Avital's cries on behalf of her brother may not have been the mature or pragmatic response (and sometimes, for better or for worse, the two coincide). Though we cultivate the mida (or trait) of chesed, it often needs to be tempered with it's opposite: pure chesed and pure din (adherence to strict legal judgment) may not fit the complexities that the world puts in our path.
The necessity to temper the tendency to show unqualified chesed (as siblings, parents or spouses) is a principle enacted in the lives of the patriarchs. Abraham represents pure chesed. Yet while we know of his acts of generosity and hospitality, we also know that he prayed for the transgressors of Sodom. Can chesed go too far? In Abraham's offspring can be seen the consequences of a chesed which has no bounds: while Isaac continued in the tradition of his father, Ishmael represented chesed without limits--which, as our sages tell us, showed itself in his lascivious behavior. Chesed, which was manifested in Avraham's openness and generosity to the world, transforms in Ishmael to a generosity without limits, a full giving of himself leading to sexual impropriety (so yes, and this is a message often lost in our generation: there is too much of a good thing). That the Torah in Leviticus uses the very word chesed to refer to sexually forbidden behavior reveals how a chesed without boundaries transforms from a virtue into a transgression. (On how words sometimes have double--and opposite--meanings, see Freud's essay, "The Antithetical Meanings of Primal Words.")
While Abraham brought the characteristic of mercy into the world, Isaac, the inheritor of the legacy of his father, brought the polar opposite, din or judgment. Isaac's life is one of heroic restraint and withholding (as evidenced foremost in his experiences during the akeidah, the sacrificial binding which he withstood). Our tradition tell us that Isaac did not want to give blessings to either one of his sons, Esau or Jacob (though he does of course in the end to both); for such a blessing would upset the order of judgment upon which for Isaac the world needed to operate. This characteristic, like that of his father, was primary and powerful in the make-up of Isaac, but also resulted in an offspring--in this case, Esau, the hunter--unsuitable to continue the tradition begun by Abraham. Ishmael's licentiousness represents the excess of chesed; Esau's murderousness, represents an excess of din. Making oneself too available, giving too much of oneself turns into an openness which leads to license; while too much of an insistence upon judgment can lead to a desire for strictness which transforms in the end into rapacious violence and murder.
The history of the patriarchs shows the coming into the world of the ideals for which we as a people are known (generosity and justice), as well as their progressive refinement. While Abraham represents the ideal of chesed, and Isaac that of din, it is Jacob--all of whose children continue in the tradition of Abraham and Isaac--who represents emet or truth. Of all of the patriarchs, only one merits the affirmation of ongoing life: "Jacob our Father is not dead"; the Torat Emet of Yaakov, the true Torah of Jacob, contains both chesed and din. Jacob takes the middle path, avoids the extremes of din and chesed by themselves, and is associated with tiferet, splendor or glory--what Maimonides describes as simply the path of the straight or middle way. Derech Hayashar, the path of b'nai Yisroel requires negotating between the extremes. When our sages tell us that there are "only three whom we call patriarchs," they are not engaging in a simple counting game. They are rather revealing the deep secret that the Jewish people have their beginnings, as well as their destiny, in the number three. Between chesed and din, which reached their perfection in Abraham and Isaac, is the middle and third way of Jacob, the way of rachomim: a more refined mercy, one informed by judgment.
Does this all mean that we will not continue to celebrate Avital's love for her brother? Certainly not. Though the refinement of chesed into rachamim, a maturity that balances between extremes, will hopefully also come in time.