TZEDAKA - PART II
III. WHY GIVE?
Before proceeding further into the details of the mitzvah of tzedaka, I feel that it is important to reflect on this mitzvah in a more general sense. What is the point of the mitzvah of giving charity? Who is it for? Perhaps the most famous question in this regard is: If Hashem wants poor people to have money, why can He Himself not simply provide for them? The answer to this question, given by the gemara in Bava Batra (8b through 11a discuss these issues) and echoed by the Sefer HaChinuch (#66) is that obviously Hashem can provide for whomever He chooses. However, the commandment to be charitable was given to us to "save us from the judgment of Hell." That is to say that tzedaka is more for the giver than for the recipient. By giving of what is "rightfully" ours to another, we not only receive credit for that act, but we also take a step towards to greater goal of making ourselves more charitable individuals. Insofar as this is the case, it is a very true example of the dictum that "one mitzvah causes another mitzvah."
Moving beyond that, there is no doubt that this mitzvah is in some way concerned with its object, namely the poor who receive the support. On that side of the coin, the question again is what is the real point of the mitzvah. Here we have to see this question in the following light: Are we commanded to merely provide for the poor and ensure that they are able to afford food and clothing (i.e. basic needs), or is there more of a "bein adam l'chaveiro" (between man and his fellow man) aspect involved here? By the latter option I am asking if there is an aspect of moral support that must accompany our giving of charity?
I believe that it is clear from a number of sources, some explicit and some less so, that the moral support issue is of greater significance here than the mere donating of funds (although clearly one must make the monetary effort as well). The clearest exposition of this idea comes from Bava Batra, where we are told that while one who supports a pauper is blessed with six blessings, one who comforts him with words receives eleven blessings. This notion is also reflected inRambam's famous eight-level hierarchy of ways in which tzedaka can be given (Hil. Matnot Aniyim 10; this hierarchy was later codified by both the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch). The most commendable form of fulfilling this mitzvah is to enter into a business partnership with such a person, thus providing them not only with funds, but also with a sense of self-esteem and personal worth. Without going through each level in order here, we should be aware of the fact that what drives the system of ordering is the way in which the tzedaka is given, with higher levels being ways of giving that minimize the embarrassment to the poor person or ways that basically communicate one's joy in being able to help out a fellow Jew. These factors work in both directions - the giver encourages him or herself to give more in the future by doing this action with a degree of happiness, and the recipient is able to benefit without feeling inferior for having done so.
Left off the list of Rambam is a law that we mentioned last week, namely that if a person refuses to accept tzedaka, we find a way to provide for him either by making the money into a loan or into a gift. Additionally, the verse stating that we must provide for a person "that which he is lacking" is interpreted by the gemara and by all poskim (halachic decisors) to mean that the amount given must be subjective with regard to the poor - if a nobleman falls upon hard times, efforts must be made to restore to him that which he was used to, even if it means providing him with a means of transportation and sumptuous meals. Once again, our utmost concern is the personal integrity of the individual in need.
Many of the laws of tzedaka will obviously fit into this idea, and I am not going to go through all of them now. Hopefully, this aspect will become evident as we proceed. However, I want to pause at this point to make note of a curious aspect of halacha that occurs in many places, and very strikingly so here. There was a very noble practice among Medieval gedolim to search for the reasons behind the commandments (ta'amei ha-mitzvot). Rambam (in the Moreh Nevuchim, Book 3) and Sefer HaChinuch are two of the best known examples of this enterprise, and their explanations certainly do provide us with philosophical notions that are meant to guide our actions beyond what we have written down for us. However, as one probes deeper into the picayune details of a law, it often becomes evident that while we feel that the reasons for the mitzvot should guide our behavior, there are laws that seem to contradict those ideals. Taking our current topic as an example, the commandment of tzedaka was given to us as a means of increasing our compassion for our fellow Jews and thus enhancing our own existences as moral and beneficent human beings. Upon further examination, however, we see laws quantifying something that many people would consider to be unquantifiable? How can we define in numbers to what degree one must be compassionate? How can we say to give this much but no more? How can we say that there are certain people who are not worthy of our charity, and certain people that it is forbidden to give to? If the idea is what is important, why does the Torah not give us a basic commandment and let us define it from there?
The answer to this question gets to the heart of what we mean when we say "Torah." While my breadth of knowledge does not qualify me to discourse at length on this topic, I would like to share a few brief thoughts of my own and others, and ask people to respond with their ideas as well. HaRav Yehuda Amital once quotedRav Kook as saying that the written Torah is like the father, while the Oral Torah is the mother. The Written Torah tells us to take "an eye for an eye," and the Oral comes along to tell us that what is meant is monetary remuneration and not actual body parts. There is clearly a balancing act that occurs between these two halves of the word of Hashem. Clearly, letting each person define his own "personal Judaism" would be too risky - the Written Torah may contain the basic principles, but it requires the excruciating detail of halacha to provide its outer boundaries. When I asked Mori V'Rabi HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein about this tension in a general sense, he referred me to the general notions of Rav Yoseif Dov Soloveitchik's "Halachic Man." The ideas contained in that work basically present the next level of ta'amei ha-mitzvot. After understanding the basic principles that are contained in the commandments as given by the verses, we must seek to understand the basic principles that guide the halacha, reading between the lines of all of the details and seeking to develop an overarching theory of what the Sages interpreted the word of Hashem as being.
Rambam, in chapter four of his "Eight Chapters" that form his introduction to Avot, cites the Aristotelian notion of seeking to do everything in moderation, with a slight tilt towards the "good" extreme in each case. I would like to suggest as an opening possibility that that is what guides many of the laws of tzedaka. True, it is impossible to truly quantify one's charitable nature and compassion. However, halacha is concerned with the fact that one not get out of hand. While giving selflessly to a flagrant sinner may help further one's personal sense of generosity, it is an act that fails to see other things that are happening in the world. If one gives away all of his money and is himself rendered destitute, has he contributed to the world by making himself a burden on society in place of those that he helped? It would seem not. Thus, halacha seeks to take the initial values that the Torah wishes to imbue in us, and to channel them in the proper way, in a manner that will be moderate without being diluted, and will hopefully produce the best possible result for us and the world around us.
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