Who Comes First
Among the list of non-kosher birds in Parshas Shemini is the interestingly named 'Chasida'. Rashi quotes the Talmud in Chullin that explains that this bird is renowned for its trait of chesed (kindness) because it shares its food with its friends.(1)
The Rizhiner Rebbe asks that if this bird is endowed with such a favorable character trait, why is it considered non-kosher? (2) He answers that the Chasida only does chesed with its own kind, but does not display any kindness to other species of birds. This form of chesed is not compatible with the Torah outlook, indeed it is a 'non-kosher' form of chesed, and consequently it is listed among the non-kosher birds.
The implication of the Rizhiner Rebbe's answer is that the 'kosher' form of chesed is to bestow kindness equally to all people, not just those closest to us. However, this does not seem to actually be the case. The Talmud discusses a case in which two people find themselves stranded in a desert and one of them has a bottle of water that can provide enough water for one of them to survive until they reach civilization. There is a debate as to the correct course of action in this case; Ben Peturah says that the one in possession of the bottle should share it with his friend even though it is very likely that as a result both men will die. Rebbe Akiva argues that a person should look after his own needs before those of his friend. Consequently, the man in possession of the bottle should keep it for himself and thereby assure himself of his own survival despite the sad results this behavior will have for his friend.(3)
The law follows Rebbe Akiva and applies to many aspects of our lives. For example, a person must provide for his own needs before those of others. Moreover, there is a list of priorities in the laws of charity, whereby a person must provide for those closer to him before others.(4) The Chofetz Chaim writes that these priorities do not just apply to charity, but to all forms of chesed.(5) It could seem that this concept of chayecha kodmim - your life comes first -- does not seem so different from the actions of the chasida bird; both seem to embody the attitude that it is acceptable to give to one's own kind(6) at the expense of others.
In truth, there are two crucial differences between "your life comes first" and the chasida. Firstly, the chasida only does chesed with its own kind to the total exclusion of all other creatures. In contrast, "your life comes first" does not preclude giving to all kinds of people, rather it simply makes a list of priorities but does not exempt us from the obligation of helping those less close to us.(7)
Moreover, there is a very significant factor that limits the effect of "your life comes first" principle. The authorities write that it applies in a situation where two people have identical needs, for example they both need bread to eat. In such a case, "your life comes first" instructs us to give to the person closer to us. However, if their needs are not the same, and the more distant person is more needy then we are obligated to provide for him first because he is more lacking. For example, if the closer person has bread but lacks meat, and the other does not even have bread, then we are obligated to provide him with bread ahead of giving meat to the person closer to us.(8)
There is a second, even more crucial difference between the chesed of the chasida and the Torah outlook of chesed. That is the attitude behind giving priority to those closer to us. The root of the chasida's limited chesed is the fact that it only cares about its own kind but has no concern for other species. The chasida is essentially a selfish bird whose sense of self extends to its own species but stops there. In stark contrast, we are obligated to care equally about all other Jews.
Given this fact, what is the reasoning behind "your life comes first"? The answer is that this principle is based on a sense of responsibility, not selfishness. The reason that we must give to ourselves and family before others is that we have more responsibility for their well-being. Thus, a person is required to provide for the financial needs of his family before other families because he is the person most responsible for their well-being. The implication of this is that "your life comes first" is not a privilege whereby I am allowed to look after myself before others because I am more important than them. Rather, it is an obligation - I am duty-bound to look after myself before others and neglecting this duty is no different from failing to observe any Torah requirement.
We have seen that the chesed of the chasida is non-kosher according to Torah because it is based on selfishness. In contrast, "your life comes first" is based on a sense of responsibility for those closest to us. It does not in any way take away from the need to care about every Jew, and it does not preclude doing chesed for all Jews, rather it teaches us a list of priorities. It is no easy task to decide how much time and effort should be allotted towards the various groups of people in one's life, ranging from one's wife and kids, to his other family, friends, community members and strangers. Moreover, each person has a different level of responsibility in each area based on his own personal circumstances.
In general one must be careful to strike a right balance: on the one hand providing enough, financial physical and emotional support to his immediate family while also fulfilling his obligations to the wider community. Many people have shown that there need not be any contradiction between providing for one's family and simultaneously helping others. Indeed doing chesed with others can be a tremendous tool in educating one's own children in traits such as generosity and empathy. If the right balance can be struck then a person can fulfill all his various responsibilities to everyone.
1. Rashi, Shemini, 11:19.
2. Quoted in Artscroll Stone Chumash. The ultimate reason that certain animals are kosher and other are non-kosher, is beyond our intellectual reasoning. Nonetheless, like all mitzvos, there are reasons for the laws of kosher from which lessons can be derived. For example, carnivorous animals are generally non-kosher. In this vein, the Rizhiner Rebbe's question is valid.
3. Bava Metsia, 62a.
4. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, Simun 251.
5. Ahavas Chesed, 1st Chelek, Ch.6, Sif 14.
6. Which in this context refers to family members.
7. Heard from Rav Yitzchak Berkovits Shlita.
8. Pischei Teshuva Yoreh Deah, simun 251, sk,4. Igros Moshe - Even Haezer, Chelek 4, Simun 26, Os 4 See also the Gemara in Nedarim,80b,81a with the commentaries of Ran, Rosh and Tosefos, where the extent of chayecha kodmim is subject to a machlokes among the tannaim.