We read in Parashat Chayei-Sara of the prayer recited by Avraham’s servant upon arriving at the well outside Aram Naharayim, in which he begged for God’s assistance in choosing a wife for Yitzchak. The servant beseeches, “Asei chesed im adoni Avraham” – “Perform kindness for my master, Avraham” (24:12). This “kindness” would come in the form of God’s assistance as the servant sets out to select the proper match for Yitzchak.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 60:2) notes the irony in the fact that Avraham here is described as requiring kindness. We normally think of Avraham as the benefactor, not the beneficiary; as the one who showers others with kindness, rather than receiving or depending upon their kindness. Here, however, the servant prays to God to shower Avraham with kindness. The Midrash comments: “Everyone needs kindness. Even Avraham, because of whom kindness abounds in the world, required kindness.” What message is the Midrash seeking to convey through this observation?
One might have assumed that only those who do not depend upon or need the help of others are capable of bestowing kindness. As long as a person himself has needs which he relies on other people to fill, one might think, he does not have the capacity to help others. And for this reason, one might have argued, the quality of kindness is embodied specifically by Avraham Avinu, who is described as having been blessed “with everything” (24:1). Only somebody whose life is perfect, it might seem, has the privilege of performing kindness.
The Midrash teaches us that this is incorrect. Even Avraham Avinu, the bastion and embodiment of kindness, required kindness. He, too, was dependent on God’s grace and benevolence. Even after he was blessed “with everything,” his servant prayed to God to shower him with kindness. Nobody enjoys a perfect life; we all have needs that we cannot fill on our own. The message that is being taught, then, is that we must dispense kindness even as we rely on and must ask for the kindness of others. Even as we look to others to fill needs which we cannot fill on our own, we must try to fill their needs which they cannot fill on their own.
This is very likely the Midrash’s intent in describing Avraham here as the person “she-ha’chesed mitgalgel ba-olam bishvilo” – “because of whom kindness abounds in the world.” The world “mitgalgel” literally means “roll.” Avraham’s life of selfless giving had a ripple effect throughout the world, such that it “rolled” about from one person to another. He introduced the concept of chesed whereby people help one another and are helped by one another. His chesed is not a system whereby the “haves” assist the “have nots,” but rather a recognition that all people are both “haves” and “have nots,” that we all have the ability to help and give, and also have the need to receive assistance. And this is perhaps the meaning of the image of kindness “rolling” throughout the world, referring to the message that we must all be givers even though we are also, by necessity, takers, that we must try to help others as much as we can even as we accept their help whenever we need it.