This week the Torah teaches us about charity. Not only does it tell us who to give, it tells us how to give. And it does so in an uncharacteristic and seemingly repetitive fashion.
“If there shall be an impoverished person from among you or any of your brethren in your cities… you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather you should shall surely give him and you shall not harden your heart when you give him” (Deuteronomy 15:7-10).
The repetitive expression and emphasis on the word him is troubling. “You shall surely give him and not feel bad” would suffice. Why is the phrase “when you give him” necessary? The Torah is referring to the person to whom you have given. It tells us not to feel bad about giving charity. Why the extra phrase about the recipient?
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soleveitchik, the Rav (Rabbi) of Brisk, was revered throughout Europe as a foremost scholar and Talmudic sage. One aspect of his character was known to shine even brighter than his scholarship – his humility.
Once, he stopped by an inn in the middle of a freezing night and asked for lodging. He had no entourage with him, and the innkeeper treated him with abuse. He did not disclose who he was, and after pleading with the innkeeper, he was allowed to sleep on the floor near a stove. The innkeeper, thinking that the man was a poor beggar, did not offer him any food and refused to give him more than a little bread and water for which Rabbi Soleveitchik was willing to pay.
The next morning Rabbi Soleveitchik did not see the shocked expression on the face of the innkeeper when a few of the town notables came to the inn. “We understand that the Brisker Rav was passing through this town. Is it possible that he came by your inn last night?”
At first, the innkeeper dismissed the question – until the Rav appeared and the group entered to greet him warmly. In a few minutes the town dignitaries converged on the inn with their students and children all in line to meet the great sage.
Terribly embarrassed, the innkeeper, who realized that he had berated and humiliated a leading Torah figure, decided to beg forgiveness from the Rav.
“Rebbe,” he cried, “I am terribly sorry. I had no idea that you were the Brisker Rav. Please forgive me.”
The Rav replied. “I would love to, but you see that would be impossible.”
“But why?” asked the owner in shock.
“You see, “explained the sage. “You are coming to ask forgiveness from the Brisker Rav. That is not who you insulted. You debased a simple Jew who came for lodging – and he is no longer here to forgive you.”
The Torah explains that there are in essence two parts to tzedaka – the patron and the recipient. Often the giver becomes detached from the recipient; he wants to give but has no concern for the receiver. He may even have disdain for the person at the door, but the mitzvah of tzedaka overrides his pre-judgement and a contribution is given. Perhaps the Torah stresses the words “do not feel badly in your heart when you give to him,” to teach us an important lesson.
In addition to the mitzvah of giving, one should identify with the recipient too. Know the true situation of the person to whom you are giving. Understand what you are giving for. Be sure that when you are giving to him, your heart should not be in bad spirits. The Torah recognizes the simplest beggar as someone worthy enough to have his pronoun repeated. “Surely give him; do not feel bad in your heart when you give him.” If the Torah is careful enough to classify the beggar as an individual who transcends a generic recipient- and transform him into a personal beneficiary, then perhaps he is worthy of recognition by all of us.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Mordecai Kamenetzky will be a featured guest speaker at the Homowack Hotel for the Shabbos of Labor Day Weekend (1997). For reservations Call the Homowack Hotel 1-800-243-4567 and mention Project Genesis.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.