Parashat Chayei-Sara begins with the death of Sara, and Avraham’s efforts to purchase a plot of land in which to bury her. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 58), in reference to this account, applies to Avraham the verse in Mishlei (21:21), “Rodeif tzedaka va-chesed yimtza chayim tzedaka ve-khavod” – “One who pursues justice and kindness will find life, justice and honor.” Surprisingly, the Midrash cites this description of pursuing kindness in particular reference to the kindness Avraham performed for his wife, Sara, after her death, eulogizing her and tending to her burial.
The question naturally arises as to why this act of kindness is deemed especially worthy of mention, beyond the extraordinary acts of kindness that Avraham performed throughout his life. Earlier in Sefer Bereishit, we read of Avraham going out to war against an alliance of powerful empires in order to rescue his nephew, and inviting travelers into his home and serving them a large feast. Aren’t these extraordinary acts more characteristic of Avraham’s lifelong pursuit of kindness than tending to his wife’s remains – something that we would expect any husband to do after his wife’s death?
It appears that Chazal here specifically seek to draw our attention to the importance of ordinary, expected acts of kindness. Too often, people are willing to extend beyond the call of duty, but fail to respond to the call of duty. They are prepared to go to great lengths in their involvement in communal work or chesed, but these efforts come at the expense of their most basic responsibilities, such as their responsibilities to their family. The Midrash here does not overlook or discount the importance of Avraham’s extraordinary acts of kindness; rather, it applauds him for ensuring that these acts did not cause him to neglect his primary duties. If one truly “pursues justice and kindness,” then his pursuit of greatness does not come at the expense of goodness; he pursues opportunities for chesed first within his home and immediate surroundings, before extending beyond his basic duties to reach even greater accomplishments.