Social welfare – the idea that society has an obligation to help the poor and the weak – has not always been as accepted as it is today. In ancient times, and in many non-Western societies even today, the family is the primary economic support system, and a person's children the only safety net.
Furthermore, a strong tradition of blaming – and punishing – the victim has also marred the development of humane governance.
In 16th century England, for example, the Poor Law "punished wanderers and vagabonds by branding them with the letter 'V', assigned them as slaves to those who would claim them, fed them bread and water and refuse meat...enslaved them for life if they escaped during the first year, and put them to death as felons if they escaped again."
Even during the opening decades of the 20th century, "Social Darwinism," the application of the Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fit in nature to human society, was intellectually fashionable. It was believed that evolutionary progress dictated that the weaker members of society would fall by the wayside, leaving the stronger ones to forge the future. Such was the climate of opinion that a prominent philosopher, A.G. Warner, could advocate the "castration and permanent isolation of the essentially unfit."
The Jewish approach to poverty could not be more different. An active and organized compassion for those in need has been one of the hallmarks of Jewish tradition.
As the Midrash says: "Tzedakah (charity) was slumbering, and Abraham aroused it. How did he do it? He built an inn with openings in every direction, and he would receive wayfarers" (Shocher Tov 110).
The love of giving did not cease with Abraham; he instilled in his progeny a deep altruism. In A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson writes: "From Temple times, the kuppah or collecting box was a pivot around which the Jewish welfare community revolved."
"We have never heard of a Jewish community that does not have a kuppah."
Indeed, it is part of Jewish law that community leaders are responsible for the needs of the poor. Thus, some 800 years ago, Maimonides wrote: "We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community that does not have a kuppah."
And so it has continued to the present time; the myriad special funds for food, clothing, education, marital expenses, medical treatment, and every other need, are commonplace throughout the Jewish world. And during the last half-century, in the fundraising campaigns to support the State of Israel, Jews all over the world have established a record of magnanimity that is without precedent. The ubiquitousness of our philanthropic activity is an organic function of Jewish tradition.
Three Kinds of Giving
You don't have to have money to be a giver. The classic ethical work, Paths of the Righteous, enumerates three main categories of generosity: giving of one's wealth, giving of oneself physically, and giving of one's wisdom.
Physically exerting oneself in helping others is something that almost anybody can do; usually all that is needed is the willingness to make an effort. Indeed, all of the major passages in life – from rejoicing with the bride and groom to healing and visiting the sick and burying the dead – are opportunities for kindness. The mundane activities of everyday life, too, are replete with such windows for concern and giving; and it can take almost any form, whether it be making a cup of coffee for a friend or holding a door open for someone.
The opportunities are endless, but many of them are missed. The story is told of a student who came to the classroom and saw all the seats were taken. So he went next door and returned carrying a chair for himself to sit in. The teacher, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, a renowned Torah scholar of the last century, admonished him: "Shlepper!" he exclaimed, using the Yiddish word for one who carries things around like a beast of burden.
The boy was taken aback by the unexpected reaction. Rabbi Mendelovitz explained to him that since he was only taking care of his own need for a chair, he was just a shlepper. Had he bothered to think of others and brought a second chair with him, his effort would have been graced by an intention far more noble.
The third category is wisdom. Sharing one's knowledge and understanding with others is a great kindness and an important part of Jewish tradition. The most common manifestation is teaching; but you don't have to stand up in front of a classroom to share what you know.
Giving advice is another way. It can take the form of counsel in medical, business or legal matters, areas where a special expertise is needed. But there is a vast storehouse of useful information in our everyday experience. One friend of mine turned himself into a walking information center by meticulously recording in a small memo pad all the names, numbers and routes of buses, trains, taxis and just about everything else you would need to know to get from one place to another.
The Fourth Dimension of Giving
Abraham excelled in all three categories of generosity. He used his wealth to accommodate travelers (Genesis 21:33). He risked his own physical safety to rescue his nephew, Lot, who had been kidnapped. With his wisdom, he brought the word of God to a world of paganism, sharing his monotheistic vision with all who would listen.
However, Abraham's inn had four entrances. Three of the entrances may be said to represent the three dimensions of giving we have described. What is the significance of the fourth entrance?
Before suggesting an answer, let us consider another statement of the Sages that warrants scrutiny: “Anyone who goes to sleep and thinks, ‘Tomorrow I will get up and do a favor for so-and-so,’ is destined to rejoice with the righteous in Gan Eden” (Midrash Mishlei 12). Certainly, it's a nice thought. But why should the reward be so great? And it's implied that eternal life is his just for the thought, even if nothing ever comes of it!
The ideal of Jewish giving is that one must strive to become a person whose essence is kindness.
Perhaps we can find the answer to both questions in an intriguing aspect of the Jewish laws of charity. Let us say that you have 100 dollars that you wish to give to the needy. Would it be better to give the entire sum to an individual in need? Or would it be preferable to break it down into smaller sums, allotting say, 10 dollars for 10 donations?
Jewish tradition teaches that it is better to give many small sums rather than one large one. The reason is that by so doing one habituates himself to giving. The ideal of Jewish giving is that it is not sufficient to perform kindnesses; one must strive to become a person whose essence is kindness.
This same ideal is the key to the enigmatic statement about having good deeds in mind when going to sleep. For what kind of person is it that has such thoughts in the privacy of his bedroom at the end of the day? Only someone who really cares deep down about others; someone whose caring is an essential part of him. Such a person merits Gan Eden – whether or not he succeeds in carrying out any particular plan to do a favor for someone – because that's what his whole life is about.
And this accounts for the fourth entrance to Abraham's inn. Abraham exemplified what it means to live a Jewish life. He gave to others in every important way. The entrances to his inn symbolize the forms that his giving took. Three of the entrances correspond to the three dimensions of giving described above. But Abraham went beyond that. He attained the fourth dimension of giving – he himself was imbued with the trait of giving. He was not just a person who gave; he was in his essence a giver.
Thus the fourth entrance represents the perfection of personality that Abraham achieved, and that we, his descendants, strive for.
Sources: Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, P. 203; Yad, Hilchos Matanas Aniyim 9:3; Lawrence Kelemen, Permission to Receive, P. 151, quoting John J. Clarke, Social Administration Including the Poor Laws, P. 24; and P. 151, quoting Warner, American Charities, P. 31; Orchos Tsadikim, Sha'ar HaNedivus.