The opening of Parshas Va'yera juxtaposes two very different models of behavior. On the one hand we read about the city of Sodom whose hallmark was their callous indifference to the plight of others. In fact, the Mishnah (Avos 5:13) criticizes the credo of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" by describing it as "middas Sodom," the character trait personified by the citizens of Sodom. It is striking that this mentality and its associated behavior - not injurious to others but merely ignoring their needs - receives our Rabbis' opprobrium.
On the other hand we have Avraham and his famous dedication to chesed. Not only does Avraham perform acts of kindness, but "va'yaratz likrasam," he runs to help people (Bereishis 18:2). And even more impressive, as Rashi quotes from Chazal,Avraham displays this level of dedication on the third - and most painful - day after his circumcision.
The segue between these two models, between Avraham's admirable hospitality and Sodom's impeding destruction, is a fascinating verse in which Hashem proclaims his love of Avraham (18:19): "Ki ya'dativ," I have loved him (Rashi's translation), "le'ma'an asher yetzaveh es banav ve'es beso acharav," because he instructs his children and his household, "ve'shamru derech Hashem le'asos tzedakah u-mishpat," so that they keep the ways of God, doing charity and justice, "le'ma'an havi Hashem al Avraham es asher diber elav," so that God might bring upon Avraham that which He had spoken to him.
Taking note of the reference to Avraham's descendents, the Gemara (Kesuvos 8b) maintains that this verse highlights the fact that we are "gomlei chassadim," who are "machzikim be'briso shel Avrham Avinu," practitioners of kindness who embrace the legacy of our forefather Avraham. Another Gemara (Yevamos 79a) widens the discussion and goes even further, stating that: "sheloshah simanim yesh be'umah zu," the Jewish people possess three defining characteristics, "rachmanim, bayshanim, u-gomlei chassadim," they are merciful, modest, and kind.
More than mere aggadic hyperbole, the Rambam (Issurei Biah 19:17) understands that this statement has actual halachic implications. Taking the Gemara's statement to its logical conclusion, he rules if these are essential Jewish character traits then any person lacking one of them, "chosheshin lo yoser," must have his or her lineage questioned.
In other words, there is a timeless genetic link possessed by all Jews. Our spiritual DNA is comprised of a triple helix of mercy, modesty, and kindness. These traits are the essential ingredients that connect us to each other and connect all Jews throughout history back to Avraham Avinu.
And just like Avraham, our greatest leaders have always excelled in their kindness to others. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to Gedolei Yisroel we typically focus on the area of Bein Adam Le'Makom, their relationship with God, and don't give enough attention to their greatness in the area of Bein Adam Le'Chavero, their relationships with other people.
One of my favorite stories about Rav Moshe Feinstein relates to an incident that occurred one summer night at the home of his friend, Rabbi Henoch Berman. R. Moshe used vacation in Connecticut at the Berman home, and one year, when he arrived, R. Berman and his young daughter were playing catch inside the house. When they heard the knock at the door R. Berman dropped his daughter's ball and hurried to welcome his illustrious guest. After a few minutes spent talking and reuniting with each other, R.Moshe excused himself to use the restroom. When R. Moshe had not returned after some time R.Berman grew concerned and went to look for R. Moshe. Going from room to room, R. Berman didn't find him until, quite unexpectedly, he heard voices coming from his daughter's room. R. Berman then opened the door and was shocked to see R. Moshe and his daughter playing catch.
Prompted to explain his actions, R.Moshe said that it was actually quite simple: "Before I arrived it is clear that your daughter had been the center of attention. I stole that from her and therefore," R. Moshe concluded, "I had a chiyyuv hashavah, an obligation to 'return' to your daughter that which I had taken from her. That's what I am doing"
What exquisite sensitivity; what remarkable kindness!
And yet, while this story certainly reflects an aspect of R. Moshe's greatness, the truth is that any one of use can do similarly great things. Any one us can be thoughtful and sensitive and keep the needs of others foremost in our minds. "Ki yadativ" - we are all descendants of Avraham Avinu, we all share the same spiritual DNA, and, as a result, we all have the ability to excel as gomlei chassadim.
"Le'asos tzedakah u-mishpat" - this is our legacy and this is our responsibility.
- Shabbas, Eretz Yisrael, Emuna and Middos: Contemporary Lessons from the Mitzvos of the Avos | Ramban - Toldos (26:5)