The Stork and What its Name Means for Us

Hebrew, filled with beauty and poetic power, is a language in which words carry deep, sacred import in addition to its “plain meaning” and historical context.  Our tradition finds a near-mystical relationship between words and things in assigning numerical values to letters.  By doing so, it suggests that words or phrases that share identical numerical values also share a deep connection to one another.

On a more basic, structural level Hebrew is built upon the shoresh, the traditionally three-letter root.  Words derived from a common shoresh share a conceptual, almost-familial relation with one another.

With this understanding and appreciation of the Hebrew language, what are we to make of the Chasid?  “Chasid” comes from the shoresh “ch, s, d” which means, piety, sensitivity, humility.  Certainly, based on this root, it makes perfect sense that the usual picture that comes to mind when we think of the Chasid is one of an individual defined by genuine piety and religious humility. One who, when a beggar comes to the door and asks for a dollar for some food, rushes for his wallet to satisfy the request but then, when the beggar is just a short way up the street, he calls him back to give him another dollar.  Why?  Because he realized that he had rushed to give the beggar the first dollar simply to get rid of the man.  In other words, for himself.  The second dollar was the one that was a gift of true chesed.

The Chasid is the embodiment of the great, most meritorious teachings of Judaism; of piety, of rachmanus, of gentle kindness, being a clear “case in point” that the word we use to name something speaks to its essential nature.

The Midrash, in Genesis Rabba, teaches that Adam looked into the essence of each and every animal before conferring upon it a name.  He named the donkey chamor because it is a beast of burden.  Its name is derived from the Hebrew “ch, m, r” meaning “physicality”.  A beast of burden is most certainly reliant on its physicality!  Compare that to our own name for the same creature.  Donkey.  It means… donkey.

All this might be merely interesting but then we discover its real import when we come upon the listing of non-kosher species in Parashat Shemini.  There, included with the other non-kosher birds, we find the chasidah, the stork.  What?  How could it be that a bird whose name is derived from the shoresh “ch, s, d”, whose name incorporates the word chesed is not kosher?  Piety.  Goodness.  Humility.  Charity of spirit.  These qualities are the very essence of kashrut, are they not?  Clearly, based on all we know about the Hebrew language and our tradition, “chasidah” has to teach us something about what it means to be a Chasid.  But what could it be?  To be intimately related to chesed and yet be non-kosher seems such a stark contradiction!

If the chasidah, the stork, is non-kosher, why bestow her with a name of such noble heritage?

Why is a non-kosher animal not kosher to begin with?  Good-hearted Jews have for generations assigned “rational” reasons for why certain animals are treif and others kosher.  As well-intentioned as this effort might be, it misses the truth that the distinction between kosher and non-kosher animals exists simply because God determines it to be so.  That said, in this determination, the Torah delineates some guidelines that allow us to define that which makes a kosher animal kosher.

To be kosher, an animal must chew the cud and must have cloven hooves.  Animals that do not meet these two criteria are not kosher.  Likewise, animals that only meet one of the criteria but not the other are considered non-kosher.  The camel is non-kosher because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves.  The pig has cloven hooves but does not chew the cud.

When it comes to birds, it is a bit harder to categorize what makes one non-kosher and another kosher other than its inclusion on the lists in the Torah.  Rambam adds to our understanding of why the Torah forbids the eating of non-kosher birds when he teaches that when one eats non-kosher birds, the negative and cruel character traits they possess can become part of our own personalities.  In other words, more than the physical characteristic there are also behavioral or personality characteristics that go into the categorization.

Which brings us back to the chasidah, the stork.  If this bird truly earned its connection to charity and piety, then certainly we would want to eat it so that, as Ramban suggests, we too may gain those very same qualities!

Clearly, that cannot be the entire picture.  And it is not.

Rashi considered the case of the chasidah and, based upon a Talmudic passage in Chulin, explains the limitation in the quality of the chasidah that, despite its connection to charity and kindness, keeps it from being kosher.  Like a distant cousin in a good and decent family, the chasidah does share the chasid’s kindness and piety.  However, the chasidah is kind, but only to her own kind.  She is charitable, but only to her own kind.  She is caring, but only to her own kind.

Her goodness is real, but limited.  She does not give any other bird a single thought.  She ignores every other species.

When it comes to a pious and kind perspective on life, there can be no more non-kosher approach than a narrow, restrictive application of that piety and kindness!  If we only extend our kindness to our own kind, we are extending a kind of impurity.

Long ago, a group of neighbors in a Jewish neighborhood sought to form a Chesed Society amongst themselves.  They wanted to provide Shabbat meals, clothes, shelter and financial assistance to the needy.  So they went to the rebbi to get his blessing.  Before conferring his blessing on the enterprise, the rebbe asked, “What if someone outside the neighborhood needs your help?”

The group who had come for the blessing looked at one another.  Then, one of them spoke up.  “We would politely refuse,” he said.  “We have limited resources and so we are committed to limiting our activities to those in the neighborhood.”

The rebbe nodded sagely but then he told them that he was withholding his blessing.  “Real chesed is caring about others.  What you are proposing reflects directly on you.  In essence, you are caring only for yourself.”

Like that “first dollar” the chasid gave the beggar, their kindness was intended for themselves.  That is not real chesed!   The Chidushei Harim teaches that this is a prime sign (siman muvhak) of impurity!

This then is the essential nature of the chasida.  Her name would deceive us into thinking that she is kind and caring, generous and giving.  But when such noble qualities are shared only with one’s own kind, they are not noble at all.

The lesson for our own times is clear.  Our definition of “our own kind” has narrowed year by year.  Even as the orthodox community has grown in America and Israel we find ourselves becoming more narrow, more rigid, more limiting.  “My own kind” means only those who look like me, talk like me, observe like me, go to the same yeshiva…

There is much kindness in the orthodox community but when it is applied only to one’s “own kind” it falls short of the blessing of chasidut. 

Like the chasida, the community that restricts itself to an ever-narrowing identity renders itself non-kosher, falling far short of the true quality of chesed.

Is there anything more damaging to the Jewish community than the various schisms and rifts that tug it apart?  Anything more hurtful than the way one judges a fellow Jew by the most cruel or superficial of distinctions?  Chesed, by its very nature, seeks to heal such hurts, not to perpetuate them.  Chesed must be chesed for all.

As we see with the chasidah¸ one who thinks of himself as a Chasid but who contributes to the judgments and opinions that harms K’lal Yisrael is, in fact, non-kosher, despite good deeds or determined piety.

R’ Elyah Chaim Meisel adds another dimension to our discussion. Chasidah does indeed represent kindness, compassion but chasidah is more closely related to chassidus than to chesed.  Our sages suggest that chassidus implies doing more than expected, going beyond the letter of the law – lifnim mishuras hadin.  It is true that the stork is good to its own kind, but even in its kindness she feels that she is doing more than expected.  Each time she extends herself, she thinks she deserves acknowledgement.

For the genuine Chasid, being kind and expressing goodness comes from a place of such humility that it would never occur to him that his behavior is anything but as it should be.  If anything, he would seek to do more, never believe he is doing too much.

The Chasid gives of himself as a natural expression of who he is, whenever and to whomever he can.   The charity of the chasidah derives from her ego, not her humility.  For this reason, hers is a negative posture that should be avoided.

Yes, the chasidah shares positive characteristics, and even behaviors, with the Chasid.  From the outside, there are times when her works could even be confused to be on a par with the Chasid.  But her good works come from such a different place that she can never be the ideal to which we aspire.