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by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
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If a man has relations with his sister... it is a "Chesed," they shall both be cut off before the eyes of their people. (Vayikra 20:17)

The word "Chesed" (usually "kindness") appears in this verse clearly out of context. Rashi explains that this one time, the word "Chesed" is related to the Aramaic "Chisuda" (Targum Onkeles, Bereishit 34:4), or disgrace, and not to the Hebrew "Chesed." In his translation of this verse, the Targum indeed renders the word "Chesed" in this instance as "disgrace."

The Ramban, however, finds it hard to accept that the same word can be used in different places in the Torah to convey such contradictory concepts. Instead, he prefers to translate the word "Chesed" as "kindness" even in this instance. The Ramban translates our verse, "A man who has relations with his sister... *should have* been doing her kindness, [therefore] they shall be cut off." That is, the Torah attributes to the brother the task of finding his sister a proper husband, thereby doing her kindness. Instead, this cruel brother makes his sister loathe to others by selfishly taking her for himself -- a match obviously destined to fail -- expressing his pure self interest.


The Ramban finds support for his interpretation in the following words of Chazal (also quoted by Rashi ad loc.):

Why didn't [Adam's wife Chava die immediately upon eating the forbidden fruit? If it was only to provide a companion for her husband, couldn't Adam have taken his daughter as a replacement for his wife?

The reason Chava didn't die immediately was in order to do kindness to their son,] Kayin. Because she did not expire immediately, *he* was able to marry his sister [and reproduce, settling the world]. This is what is meant by the verse in Tehillim 89:3, "I declared that the world will be built from kindness." [This is also what is meant by the verse, "One who takes his sister... it is kindness." Kayin was allowed to take his sister through the kindness of Hashem] (Sanhedrin 58b, with Rashi and Tosefot)

According to the Ramban's reading of the verse, the Midrashic interpretation is not far off from the simple meaning of the verse. When is it forbidden to take one's sister? Only when it is possible to do her kindness by finding her a proper match rather than taking her for one's self. At the time of Creation, however, when there were no other matches to be found for Kayin's sister. Certainly in this case it was a "Chesed" (kindness) for Kayin himself to take her!

We may add that it is for the same reason that the sons of our forefather Yakov, the 12 tribes, were permitted to marry their sisters (Rashi Bereishit 37:35, from Midrash Tanchuma). When they saw that the other nations of the world did not accept their beliefs, the sons of Yakov abstained from forming marital relations with them (Ra'avad to Gemara Avodah Zarah 36b). Just as was the situation with the children of Adam, the sisters of the tribes could marry nobody but their brothers. For the tribes to marry their sisters would be a proper kindness. They too had the responsibility to lay the foundations for "a new world" just as Kayin the son of Adam!


In a broader sense, the Ramban's interpretation opens up a new path for understanding many of the forbidden relationships. Perhaps the "kindness" expected of man is the proper use of his ability to reproduce. By granting man his reproductive faculty, Hashem made man an active partner in the ultimate kindness of Creation (Niddah 31a). When man uses that ability for personal pleasure or egoism rather than to create a proud new generation, he is taking advantage of this special gift for personal gain. He is refusing to administer the kindness he was granted. Since relations with members of one's immediate family do not usually produce healthy and able offspring, they can be viewed as expressions of egoism (trying to reproduce one's self) or self indulgence, rather than kindness. This is why the Torah forbids such relations so severely.

The sin of incestual relations can thus be compared to that of a close emissary of the king who was appointed by the king to distribute the king's riches to those who are worthy of them. If, instead of distributing them, the appointee takes the riches for himself, his sin is much worse than that of an ordinary thief, since his selfishness and greed brought him to betray the confidence of the king.

For the same reason, the Torah prescribes severe punishment for homosexuality and bestiality. Such acts clearly reflect a desire for physical pleasure with no pretenses of kindness at all, an absolute abuse of the reproductive privileges granted to man by Hashem, the king of kings. To a lesser degree, licentiousness and extramarital relations also demonstrate that one is taking advantage of the divine commission to delegate kindness, and that his primary interest is physical pleasure rather than reproduction.


Ramban points out that the verse in Mishlei also draws a parallel between intra-familiar relations and a lack of kindness:

A man of kindness is benevolent to his relatives, while a cruel man ruins the members of his family. (Mishlei 11:17, see Rashi)

Rav Chaim Yakov Goldvicht of blessed memory (former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem Be'yavneh) pointed out a similar parallel in the actions of the people of Sodom. Sodom was destroyed because its people "did not support the poor and destitute" (Yechezkel 16:49 -- see Yalkut Shimoni to Parshat Vayera, in more detail). At the same time, these cruel people were known for their promiscuity. Rashi (Bereishit 19:5) explains that when the people of Sodom asked Lot to bring his guests out to them, "So that we may know them," they were planning to homosexually harass them (see also Tanchuma, Bamidbar 25:1).

We may add to this that Avraham Avinu, the antithesis of the Sodomites in his exaggerated practice of kindness, was also unique in his purely spiritual involvement in reproduction. Rashi tells us (Bereishit 12:11) that until Avraham went to Egypt with his family at the age of 75, he did not even realize the beauty of his own wife, Sarah.

In a similar fashion, certain creatures which are known for their cruelty and lack of kindness are also said to be especially licentious. The raven is often referred to as cruel to even his its children (Gemara Eruvin 22a, Ketuvot 42b, Rashi Bava Batra 8a "Kakelev"). At the same time, the raven was the only bird that had relations with its mate in Noach's ark, although it had been prohibited to do so until the end of the Great Flood (Sanhedrin 108b; see Rashi Bereishit 7:7). The dog, which is always chosen as an example of a creature that eternally takes and never gives (Gemara Nedarim 24a), was the only other animal that had relations with its mate in the ark (Sanhedrin ibid.).

May we merit to follow in the ways of our Creator and dispense the ultimate kindness that he put in our trust as we should.


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