The Torah in Parashat Vayechi tells of the funeral held for Yaakov in Canaan after his death. We read that his sons transported his remains to a place called Goren Ha-atad, where they eulogized him. The Torah relates that the local Canaanite tribes were moved by the sight of the large assembly at Goren Ha-atad, and took note of the fact that the Egyptians were mourning the loss of an important figure (50:11).
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 1:10) comments that the place where this occurred was not really called “Goren Ha-atad.” The Torah refers to this sight as such, the Yerushalmi explains, to indicate that these Canaanite tribes who marveled at the large mourning assembly were evil, and “deserved to be trampled upon with thorns.” The word atad refers to a thorn bush, and the Canaanites near the site of Yaakov’s funeral were worthy of being tortured to death with thorns, and thus the site was called “Goren Ha-atad.” God spared these tribesmen, the Yerushalmi adds, because they joined in showing respect to Yaakov. The Yerushalmi cites different views as to how precisely these Canaanites paid respects, but all agree that they made some simple gesture, such as standing upright or motioning with their fingers as they observed the mourning.
The question arises, if, indeed, these Canaanites were so sinful that they were deemed worthy of a painful death, why did God spare them in reward for a small gesture of respect? How could such a simple act outweigh a lifetime of sin?
The Tolna Rebbe suggested that the significance of the Canaanites’ gesture lies in the effort that it took. As the Mishna in Avot (5:23) famously teaches, “Le-fum tza’ara agra” – the primary reward earned for a mitzva is for the work and effort invested. People mired in sinfulness, who have become habitually evil, can earn great reward through even a simple act of goodness, if they need to work hard to resist their sinful tendencies in order to perform this otherwise unimpressive act. And thus the Canaanites, who were disinclined to show respect to Yaakov, were rewarded for opposing their natural inclination and paying their respects. Although the act might not appear all that impressive or significant, it was highly valued because it entailed the Canaanites’ opposing what had become their natural instincts and tendencies.
We might add that this could perhaps explain the Yerushalmi’s concluding remarks in this passage: “If these, who did not perform kindness with their arms or legs – yet look how the Almighty repaid them, then Yisrael, who perform kindness with their arms and legs for their great people and for their simple people – all the more so.” If the Canaanites’ small gesture of respect rendered them worthy of reward, the Yerushalmi comments, then we can only imagine the reward we earn through concrete acts of kindness that we perform. Curiously, the Yerushalmi emphasizes in this context that Am Yisrael performs kindness for both “gedoleihem” and “ketaneihem” – distinguished people, and ordinary commoners. The contrast drawn between our nation and the ancient Canaanites relates not only to the fact that the Canaanites made just a small gesture while we perform tangible acts of kindness, but also to the fact that we perform kindness for all people, and not merely for people of stature, like Yaakov Avinu. The Yerushalmi’s intent, perhaps, is that performing kindness for simple, ordinary people requires an extra degree of effort and sacrifice. We are naturally enthusiastic about performing favors for people of distinction, because such favors make us feel important. The more difficult challenge is performing kindness for “ketaneihem,” for ordinary, simple people whom we are not naturally inclined to respect or hold in high esteem. When we overcome this tendency, and we make the effort to show respect and act kindly towards simple people, then we become worthy of God’s kindness and blessings.