In the past few weeks we have discussed the various aspects of the obligation to ‘Love Thy Neighbor’. We have seen how important it is to strive to be a kind, caring person who is constantly striving to be aware of others’ needs. However, there is one remaining issue that requires further clarification: To what extent does the obligation of kindness go? If we spend all our time helping others there is the possibility that we will neglect ourselves and our families. How does Judaism deal with this issue? The Talmud discusses a case where two men find themselves stranded in the desert; one has a bottle of water which, if he drinks it all, will probably last him till they reach civilization but his friend will die. If, however, he shares the bottle then the likelihood is that neither of them will survive long enough to reach safety. What should the man who has the bottle do? The Talmud concludes that in such a case we say ‘chayecha kodmim’ that a person is obligated to put his life before that of his friend, and consequently he must keep the bottle for himself even though it means that his friend will probably die .
The Torah always advocates kindness, nevertheless, a person is obligated to look after himself and his own needs before he looks to help others. A person should have a sense of responsibility towards his own well-being – he must look after his physical and emotional health. Moreover he should not neglect his family at the expense of helping other people – his family comes first.
The balance between focusing on oneself and others is a delicate one – on the one hand a person must make sure that he and his family are functioning well, on the other hand, a person cannot totally ignore the outside world and only care about himself. The Torah provides us with direction to enable us to achieve the right balance through its instructions about giving charity. A Jew is required to give charity, however he is forbidden to give more than 20% of his earnings away because doing so could cause him to become poor. From here we see that we should give to the extent that we do not feel an undue stress on the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of oneself and his family. It is admirable to have guests for meals in one home but a family may, periodically feel the need to spend time alone so that they can focus on each other. With thought and practice we will all hopefully find the correct balance that will enable us to be the most productive and happy members of society.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org