How to Give to Others
In this week's Torah portion is the source of the mitzvah to give charity. The Torah tells us that we should give a person "enough for his lack which is lacking to him." (1) The Sages learn out from the words, "to him" at the end of the verse that we must give according to each individual's specific needs. For example, if a person who was wealthy and used to an extravagant lifestyle then became poor, we must try to give him to the extent that he can live according to his previous standing.(2)
In this vein, the Sages tell us of a man who had been accustomed to traveling on a carriage with servants running in front of him. When he lost his money, Hillel the Elder ensured that he have a carriage to ride and even ran in front of the carriage himself!
This concept teaches us a fundamental principle in chesed (kindness)(3) - that we must give according to the specific needs of the other person. A significant part of the work involved in doing chesed is to discern each person's unique requirements and strive to fulfill them. This is not an easy task because each person views the world through his own eyes and one can easily project his own desires and needs onto others. Consequently he may provide them with what would be important to the giver but is not so important to the receiver. For example, if a person likes apples he may presume that others also do and therefore he will feel he is doing a great chesed by giving them apples. However, the recipient of his 'chesed' may prefer oranges, thus the giver did not truly satisfy his friend's needs because he presumed that he had the same tastes as himself.
This concept, however, seems to contradict the most fundamental mitzvah in bein adam lechaveiro (interpersonal relationships); that of 'love your neighbor like yourself'. Hillel interpreted this mitzvah to primarily mean, ''that which is hateful to you do not do to your friend". This teaches us that the mitzvah is to treat one's friend in the same way that one would like to be treated himself. This implies that one does not have to try to understand his fellow's specific needs, rather the mitzvah is limited to treating the receiver according to the giver's own personal preferences. This would indicate that if a person likes apples then he should give apples to his friend because he would like his friend to do the same to him, and the fact that his friend actually prefers oranges is irrelevant.
The Chofetz Chaim raises this question in the context of the laws lashon hara (4): He writes that some statements are not objectively lashon hara, rather they depend on the subject of discussion. For example, to say that Ploni learns 4 hours a day could be a positive statement or a transgression of lashon hara. It depends about who is being spoken about. If one would say that a working man learns 4 hours a day, then that would be a praiseworthy statement, however to say the same thing about someone who is supposed to learn full-time, would be lashon hara. The Chofetz Chaim then says that one may ask the aforementioned kasha; a person who works himself may argue that he would like people to say about him that he learns four hours a day, therefore it should be permissible to say the same thing about someone who is supposed to learn the whole day. The proof of this argument is Hillel's statement that it is only forbidden to do to someone what we would not like him to do to us, but in this case we would very much like to be spoken about in such a way.
The Chofetz Chaim answers that when Hillel said, "that which is hateful to you do not do to your friend", he meant that if you were on his level or in his situation, then this would be hateful to you, even if it is not actually hateful to you at your present standing. This teaches us that the mitzvah of 'love your neighbor as yourself' does not in fact contradict the concept of doing chesed according to the other person's needs. Rather it means that, just like we would like our fellow to do what is beneficial in our eyes, and avoid what it hateful in our eyes, so too, we must treat him in a way that is beneficial in his eyes.
Rav Yisroel Salanter taught and demonstrated the importance of understanding other people's needs and situations throughout his life. On one occasion, a student saw Rav Salanter conversing with someone about mundane matters, which was very out of character for him, because he would generally only speak words of Torah. Later, during a discussion on idle speech, the student asked Rav Salanter why he was speaking about such mundane matters. He explained that the man with whom he was speaking was depressed and it was a great chesed to cheer him up now. Said Rav Salanter, "How could I cheer him up? With talk of mussar (5) and fear of God? The only way was with light, pleasant conversation about worldly matters." (6) He understood the needs of this man and acted accordingly.
We have seen how the foundation of true chesed is understanding our fellow's needs and trying to fulfill them, rather than presuming that that which is important to us is also important to them. This challenge occurs constantly in every kind of relationship. In marriage, it is very common that husband and wife have different interests; for example, when the wife talks about something that is important to her, the husband may not feel a great deal of enthusiasm in this particular topic. However, he or she should recognize that this is important to the other one and therefore express interest in that which is important to her. Similarly, children have very different interests than their parents and their parents may not be so fascinated by the childish pursuits of their children. Nonetheless it is essential that they do not dismiss their children's enthusiastic discussion because to do so shows a severe lack of empathy and concern with their children's needs. There are countless likewise situations throughout our lives and it is vital to work on this area in order to become genuinely kind people.
1. Re'eh, 15:8.
2. Sifrei, 116 and Kesubos, 67b.
3. Indeed, the Sefer HaChinuch writes that; "anyone who helps his fellow, whether it be through providing money, food, or other needs, or even kind words, has performed the Mitzva of charity." (Chinuch, Mitzva 479). Thus we see that all forms of kindness are included within the Mitzva of charity.
4. Chofetz Chaim, Hilchot Lashon Hara, Klal 5, Halacho 6.
6. Zaitchik, 'Sparks of Mussar', p. 31.