When is chesed not so kind after all?
Parshas Sh’mini identifies the kosher status of various animals and birds. One of the non-kosher birds listed is the chasidah, the stork. Chazal say that this creature was aptly named for its tendency to perform chesed, sharing food with its friends (Rashi, VaYikra 11:19). Even if it doesn’t really deliver babies, this stork sounds like a real baalas chesed!
This begs the question: Why isn’t the chasidah kosher? After all, our Sages have explained that Hashem prohibited the birds with predatory and unkind natures out of concern that humans could become more cruel by ingesting them (Ramban, VaYikra 11:13). If so, what could possibly be wrong with a bird whose essence – and very name – is all about the kindness it performs for its friends?
The Chidushei HaRim (the first Gerrer Rebbe, d. 1866) offered a very sharp answer. The problem is that the chasidah only performs chesed for its friends; it does not share with anyone else. On the surface, it may appear to be performing acts of kindness; but, in reality, it is simply hanging out with its buddies. True chesed is helping those in need and building new relationships – not exclusively doing favors for those who may be expected to return the favor, or those with whom we already enjoy spending time.
This pointed musar has many practical implications and presents an opportunity for self-reflection for all who consider themselves to be giving, friendly, and hospitable. For example, to counteract Haman’s claim that there was rampant division among the Jewish people, Mordechai and Esther instituted the mitzvah of mishloach manos to foster friendships and connectedness across the nation (Manos HaLevi to Esther 9:19). If so, those who only deliver “pekalach” to their inner clique – while overlooking neighbors they do not like – are missing the whole point and proving Haman right.
Similarly, during Kiddush Levanah, there is a common custom to greet three individuals with a hearty “Shalom aleichem” (Rama, Orach Chayim 426:2) in order to begin the month with improved harmony and reduced enmity (Siddur of the Arizal). By that measure, those who scan the street for only existing friends – weaving through the crowd to greet people they see all the time while sidestepping all the shul-mates whose names they have never bothered to learn – are missing an opportunity to start the next month with true shalom.
Lastly, it is crucial to not confuse having an enjoyable meal with friends with the mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim, which is defined as providing for those who need a place to eat or stay (see Rama, Orach Chayim 333:1). Opening our homes exclusively to those whose company we enjoy – bypassing those who are in financial or social need – is not actually considered hospitable.
To be clear, building and maintaining close friendships is another indispensable value. We cannot possibly be “best friends” with everyone, and it is necessary to have those whom we trust more than others. Let’s just be sure to not conflate our enjoyable social interactions with our obligation to provide chesed. If the former comes at the expense of the latter, then it might be time to reassess how – and with whom – we allocate our time and resources.
It is important to remember that the attitude of the chasidah is not a “kosher” lifestyle. The Torah’s exclusion of this exclusive bird teaches us to deal generously with not only our friends, but with those truly in need, as well.