Vayechi: Chesed ve’Emet, Acknowledging truth allows us to offer our compassion fully.

וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א ׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִׂים־נָ֥א יָֽדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶֽאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם:

And the days of Israel came close to death and he called to his son, to Joseph, and he said to him “If pray I found favour in your eyes, pray put your hand under my thigh, and treat with me with Chesed and Emet; do not, I pray, bury me in Egypt” (Exodus 47:29)

Chesed and Emet – two of the thirteen middot, the attributes of God explained by God to Moses, after the incident of the Golden calf, and which continue to be used liturgically in the same way that Moses used them then– to ask for divine mercy when there is no legal basis or reason for it.

Essentially, used as the centre of the selichot prayers of the Days of Awe, these words, taken from Exodus 34 (vv6-7) remind God of our individual and group relationship with the divine, and that sometimes it is only the mercy of God that allows that relationship to continue. They set the scene for teshuvah, for repentance or rather for a return to God after we have strayed.

Of the thirteen middot derived from this text, all but one refer to mercy, kindness, favour or forgiveness –the second of our pair here in Vayechi, when Joseph asks Jacob, Ve’asiti imadi Chesed ve’Emet.

The word Emet means truth or faithfulness. Its presence in the request is a problem for classical commentators on this text, and is beautifully glossed by Rashi who quotes the midrash (Gen. Rabbah 96:5) which uses the context of the proper burial of the dead by understanding Jacob to be saying to his son “The chesed/loving-kindness that is done for the dead is here a true loving-kindness, entirely altruistic, since one cannot expect payment or reward of any kind from the dead for caring for them”. And from this reading grows the mitzvah of Chesed SHEL Emet – truthful kindness or perfect kindness, the entirely altruistic mitzvah of helping those who are powerless and completely vulnerable and who will never be able to recompense or return the favour – the unburied dead.

It is a beautiful platform on which to stand this most selfless and necessary of activities, yet I find myself not entirely satisfied either with the midrashic gloss of Rashi or with the usual interpretation that “chesed ve’emet” in this context is simply an idiomatic phrasing of doing a favour or a good deed. It seems to me that the two words mean very different things, and placing them together (as happens fairly often in the bible) creates a new thing, a tension between loving kindness and truth/faithfulness with which we must engage.

As well as being in the verses which give us the attributes of God, the combination of words comes to describe God and God’s work, for example in psalms such as

“All the ways of God are Chesed and Emet to those who keep his covenant and his testimony” (25:10)  כָּל־אָרְח֣וֹת יְ֭הֹוָה חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֑ת לְנֹצְרֵ֥י בְ֝רִית֗וֹ וְעֵדֹתָֽיו:

Or “Righteousness and truth are the foundation of Your throne, Chesed and Emet go out from before You”        (89:15)    צֶ֣דֶק וּ֭מִשְׁפָּט מְכ֣וֹן כִּסְאֶ֑ךָ חֶ֥סֶד וֶ֝אֱמֶ֗ת יְֽקַדְּמ֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ

Chesed and Emet come together in God, and are a fundamental part of the Covenant relationship we have with God – this is clear from the texts. So it is a very easy stretch when reading those same texts to understand that we expect Chesed/loving-kindness from God EVEN THOUGH the truth of our being is not always deserving – hence the use of the middot in the selichot prayers of pardon throughout the Days of Awe.

But the real lesson in the deathbed conversation between Jacob and Joseph is not that we expect unconditional love and forgiveness from God, but rather that we have to mediate the one with the other for ourselves, that however we might perceive the truth of our relationship with someone else, when the chips are down, then Chesed also has to be in the equation. Indeed sometimes compassion has to override the truth of someone’s behaviour.

What Jacob is asking of Joseph is not couched in the patriarchal power language – “you are my son and must follow my wishes”. It is phrased very much as a favour – “if I have found favour in your sight….” But then he adds to the request: “deal with me with both Emet and Chesed”.

It may be that Jacob know that he cannot order this son of his who has become so powerful in Egypt, and who may have his own political reasons to decide on the funeral planning for his father. It may be that Jacob knows that he may not even be successful when he appeals to Joseph’s magnanimity with his request formed in such conciliatory words as the formulaic “if I have found favour in your sight”.  He does this but then he goes on to nuance his words with the appeal to both Chesed and Emet. It seems to me that Jacob is asking of his son something quite new in human interaction at this point – he is acknowledging that the Emet, the truth of their relationship is that has been strained for many years, that he has not parented Joseph well, that he has little claim on his son for his request, and yet he is asking for the compassion of Chesed. He is saying to his son –“ I know who I am to you, and you know that I know this, but my request is so important to me that I am asking you to see past this truth we both acknowledge and help me.”

The honesty with which Jacob is speaking here to his son is the Emet he is asking for from his son. He does not want their story to be airbrushed or hidden from their interaction, but to be part of the decision making process that Joseph will go through. He does not want the failures in their relationship to be buried and treated as if they never existed. With the words “ve’emet” he is telling his son that the unfinished business of their relationship was real, that the pain felt by Joseph was real too, and he is asking Joseph to honour his wishes despite this pain, through the power of his compassion for his father. Essentially with the combination of Chesed ve Emet Jacob asks of his son not only great compassion, but great compassion in the light of the knowledge of the painful truth.

The lesson is well taught. Joseph honour his father’s wishes and the sibling rivalry ends here with the death of Jacob. The pain is recorded, and it does not go away or be hidden from view but neither does it sprawl out into the next generation. Once faced with integrity and acknowledged by the person who is perceived to have caused the pain, it can be overcome and compassion allowed to take its place. Psalm 89 tells us that the world is built with Chesed (v3) – it is the tool of creation, a new possibility.

כִּֽי־אָמַ֗רְתִּי ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה

And Jacob is asking for this too – once the truth is acknowledged a new possibility emerges and compassion has its place. The importance of the mitzvah of Chesed shel Emet, of the altruistic treatment of the dead who cannot repay us for what we do for them is great. But the importance of treating others with Chesed ve’emet is equally great, for only then do we truly let go of what is holding us back from our potential and our future.

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