As the designated Banim atem la’Hashem Elokeichem, “Children to Hashem, your G-d” (ibid 14:1), we must act in accordance with our special status. It should serve as a source of pride and obligation. The Torah enjoins us with certain prohibitions which are entirely acceptable to the gentile world, but, to Hashem’s children, are an anathema. Among these prohibitions are the Jewish dietary laws which prohibit us from consuming certain animals, fowl and fish. Among the fowl, the Torah lists specific fowl which are considered unkosher due to their “character” which, of course, only the Creator Who created them knows.
Among these non-kosher birds is the chasidah, translated as the stork. While the stork/chasidah may be unkosher due to a character defect that it possesses, one wonders why it is called chasidah. The word chasidah is closely related to chassid, which means an individual who embodies piety at its apex, or one who performs acts of chesed, kindness. Either way, the name chasidah for a character-defective fowl which is unkosher seems to be an unlikely name. Rashi (commentary to Vayikra 11:19) cites the Talmud (Chullin 63a) that the chasidah displays kindness towards others of its own species. It is surprising that a bird that exhibits such compassion should be deemed unkosher. The Sifrei Chassidus (attributed to the Rizhiner Rebbe, or Chidushei HaRim) explain that directing one’s kindness efforts exclusively to one’s own species/fellows, while simultaneously refusing to help others, indicates that its acts of chesed/kindness are selfishly motivated and not very kind. The true baal chesed is magnanimous and reaches out to all. He is not exclusive, does not limit his chesed endeavors to his friends, etc. He does not distinguish between individuals based upon his personal opinions, religious preferences, definitions of good and evil in people. We are all in this together. We should, thus, allow for chesed to be all-encompassing and directed toward all.
While this explains the reason behind the chasidah’s name, it does not explain why it was not called by a name that does not focus solely on its deviant acts of chesed. Chesed is a term that focuses on kindness. It is a positive term. To call a fowl of deficient character by a positive term, simply because it distorts it, seems misguided. After all, chesed means kindness. Deficient kindness is not kindness. I think the resolution to this question is to be found in the Radak’s commentary to Parashas Kedoshim (Vayikra 20:17) where the Torah admonishes us concerning aberrant, immoral relationships. In addressing the prohibition against incest, the Torah says, Chesed hu, it is a disgrace. Here the word chesed is defined as disgrace. Why is this? The Radak explains that chesed has two meanings: kindness; and disgrace. The immediate question is: What is the relationship between kindness and disgrace? Radak explains that the disgrace of immorality is the product of over indulgence. One who is too anxious to give pleasure and is reluctant to discipline himself/herself or others is in danger of falling prey to the evil of immorality. In other words, kindness requires discipline. Without some form of due diligence one can lapse into sin.
With this idea in mind, we understand why defective kindness can be referred to as chesed, not the chesed of kindness, but instead, the chesed of disgrace. The chasidah deforms the act of chesed by deviating from the kindness as perceived by the Almighty – kindness to all, under all circumstances. Selective kindness falls under the rubric of disgrace.
We mentioned earlier that chassid also means pious, righteous. Horav Eliyahu Chaim Meisel, zl, adds that while chasidah refers to kindness, it also more importantly alludes to chassidus, piety. Chassidus means acting piously, going beyond the call of duty, beyond the letter (and, often, the spirit) of the law. The stork/chasidah does perform acts of kindness, but makes a big to-do out of its actions. It always feels that it is extending itself and doing more than it needs to do. The chasidah (or person who acts this way) thrives on accolades and attention. Heaven forbid should one benefit from the chasidah and not properly acknowledge its act of kindness. The chasidah always feels (and makes a point of allowing the beneficiary to feel) that it has extended itself. Such chesed is not focused on the beneficiary, but rather it is self-focused, attention-grabbing chesed. Since it is true that the chasidah could have chosen other activities to generate accolades for itself, it must be commended for selecting an area of endeavor that benefits others. The baal chesed who intimates by his actions that he/she derives great satisfaction in being referred to as a baal chesed/chasidah is still a baal chesed and should be acknowledged for his kind work. One must be aware, however, that since his kindness is self-centered, if the accolades stop, so will the chesed.