When Sarah died at the age of 127, Abraham’s family lost its hesed, the caring, steadfast acts that connect people and sustain the world. Sarah’s hesed was unfailing, even in difficult times. Let this be your hesed to me, Abraham had once said to Sarah when he proposed how she might save him from threatening rulers by posing as his sister instead of his wife (Genesis 20:13).
Under the best of circumstances, a life as long as Sarah’s is a reminder of the difference between what is sad and what is tragic. But, some say that Sarah died of a broken heart, for Abraham had lost his own hesed to a blinding revelation that he should sacrifice their son, Isaac. In that moment, he was no longer the exemplar of hesed as he had been to hungry and tired strangers at the door, to kin held captive, and to unknown residents of the violent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
With Sarah’s death, Abraham resolved to restore the hesed that he had once known and that Sarah had never abandoned. The new days, going forward, required the connectedness of the old days; they required the old family wellspring of hesed, the unending flow ready to be drawn up and shared.
Abraham’s servant found the very place where the metaphor and the water converged—the wellspring marking his arrival in the home district of Abraham’s family in Aram-Nahara’im. Here, where water was drawn and hesed was offered to strangers, the faithful servant became a master of prayer, an exemplar for all who would follow. He asked for hesed in his master’s name, as Abraham himself had once asked Sarah. He did not pray for a miraculous divine act, but for a human act of hesed:
He made the camels kneel by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and act with hesed towards my master, Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘drink, and I will also water your camels’- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have acted with hesed towards with my master” (Genesis 24:11-14).
Those were days of hesed, back when Sarah had stood at that spring; days so necessary, and now, so absent. Abraham’s servant drew the yearning for hesed into a prayer. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, drew that same yearning into a poem:
“Those were days of hesed,” I heard them say once
on a winter street during days of loneliness and pain.
Even for days of hesed we need at least two,
one to give hesed and one to receive it.
When they are separated, the hesed does not abide
or it is spilled into the street as if from a broken pipe.
Religions do not do hesed, they only inform
empty time, with a bell, with a muezzin’s call,
with a siren or a shofar, with knocks on the door
during days of penitence. Religions are not able
to inform either God or his hesed.
Since the day that sacrifices ended
each person is left himself
The hesed of once-upon-a-time is a nostalgic memory especially vivid on dark winter days. Loneliness and pain are most keenly felt in the absence of hesed. Those were the days, they used to say; by days, meaning at least two. Perhaps those days were the last gasp of the plural—the final two days before hesed would spill out for lack of connectedness.
Hesed flows through connected days. Abraham’s servant, as well as the poet, knew that human connection makes for hesed; the day is only a carrier. Religions are only carriers. Even God is only a carrier of hesed. The fullness of hesed flows through human acts, and Amichai taught that each of us has only the self to bring to the task.
Go forth and do small things. Look to fellow humans for the everyday evidence of hesed. The bucket drawn from the spring is not hesed. Hesed is the one who does the drawing.