Charity and Self-Respect
Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )
Devarim, 15:7-8: “When there will be among you a destitute person from one of your brothers in one of your gates in your land which Hashem, your God gives to you, you will give to him; do not harden your heart and do not close your hand from your destitute brother. Rather, you will surely open your hand to him, and you will surely lend him that which is lacking to him.”
Rashi, Devarim, 15:8, Dh: “Even a horse to ride on it and a servant to run in front of him.”
The Torah instructs us to give charity and ends with an enigmatic command to give the poor person “that which is lacking to him”. Rashi briefly explains, based on a Talmud1, that this teaches that one must even give the poor person a horse to ride on and a servant to run in front of it.
The Talmud elaborates that normally one does not need to give a poor person so much money that he will become rich, rather one should provide him with what he is lacking, such as basic needs. However, in the case of a person who was wealthy and then lost all of his wealth, the Torah is teaching that one must provide for him those things that he feels lacking now when compared to when he was wealthy.2
To demonstrate, the Talmud brings the case of a wealthy person who was used to riding on a horse and having servants run in front of him. After he lost all of his money, Hillel raised money to pay for him to still ride a horse and have servants run in front of him. On one occasion, there was no servant available so Hillel himself ran in front of the poor man, despite the fact that Hillel was a Torah Sage.
The commentaries ask a very strong question on Hillel’s action: In Its discussion of the laws of returning lost objects), the Talmud in Bava Metsia teaches the concept of a ‘Zakein v’eino lefi kevodo’ – this means that a Torah Sage is exempt from the mitzvah of returning lost objects when returning the lost item would appear beneath his dignity – for example, to bring a stray sheep back to its owner would be inappropriate for a Torah Sage. The Rosh3 rules that not only is the Sage exempt from returning lost objects but he is prohibited from going beyond the letter of the law to return the object, because it is considered degrading to his status as a Sage.
Accordingly, how could Hillel run in front of the poor person in place of servants – this was surely something beneath his dignity as a Sage?
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz addresses this question. He explains that the reason that this recently impoverished person needed to ride a horse and to have servants run in front of him, was because of the honor that it gave to him. Rabbi Shmuelevitz writes that in normal circumstances it would indeed be forbidden for Hillel to degrade himself by running in front of this person, even if it constituted the mitzvah of charity. However, Rav Shmuelevitz asserts that it must be this person’s need for honor was so great that it reached the level of being life-threatening. Hillel was concerned that if this person did not have his insatiable need for honor satisfied, then his very life was at risk. Therefore, it was permitted for Hillel to degrade himself in such a way that was normally forbidden.4
We learn from Rabbi Shmuelevitz how essential honor is for people – this reminds us that when giving charity, the honor of the recipient must be foremost in one’s mind, not just the fact that one is giving him something. We have discussed examples of the exemplary kindness of Rabbi Shimshon Pincus. Yet, while giving lavishly to others, he was always highly sensitive to the honor of the recipients and how on occasion, maintaining the self-dignity of the recipients overrode limitless giving, as is demonstrated by the following story.5
Once, a group of fundraisers raised money for a family in the community that had suffered several consecutive tragedies and was in deep financial straits. When the family had to move to a larger city for a short period of time, the fundraisers sought to take advantage of the opportunity to launch a massive charity campaign to inform the public of their dire situation and raise deeply needed funds.
They approached Rabbi Pincus for his endorsement but were met with a surprising reaction: “They will be humiliated to death…How can you do such a thing? These are people with terrible suffering and everyone will know exactly who you’re talking about. They’ll never be able to show their faces in public again!”
Rav Pincus was teaching that tzedakah may never compromise the self-respect of a fellow Jew, and every Mitzva must be measured on the scale of Torah, with the utmost sensitivity to the other person’s needs.
May we all merit to emulate the examples of Hillel and Rabbi Pincus.
- Kesubos, 67b.
- My Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, suggests that this halacha does not mean that one must continue supporting this poor person on such a level on a permanent basis, rather until he adapts to his new situation.
- Bava Metsia, Chapter 2, Simun 21.
- Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv offers a totally different answer. He explains that Hillel hid his identity when he ran in front of the poor person. It seems that Rabbi Elyashiv understands that the prohibition for a Sage to go beyond the letter of the law when he is exempt, only applies when it is not recognizable that he is doing a Mitzva, such as in the case of returning a lost object, because it looks bad to onlookers that the Sage is doing something beneath his dignity for no apparent reason. In a similar vein, if onlookers do not know that the person doing this Mitzva is a Sage, then there is no harm done to his honor or the honor of the Torah.
- “The Life of Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus”, pp.221-222. See pp.222-224 for other stories in this vein.