HELPING YOUR FELLOW JEW IS A MITZVAH ABOVE ALL ELSE
By Eugen Schoenfeld
Most Jewish families in my shtetl began preparing for the Shabbat on Thursday, which was also the day when the poor and the needy came to our home for a nedovoh (a handout), so that they too would have enough money to purchase meat, wine, and challah – the three essential items necessary for making a festive Shabbat meal. Starting Thursday morning, into the early afternoon, as I remember it, there was a stream of people who came for a meager donation distributed by my mother. She was ready for them.
On Wednesday, mother prepared a stack of coins and as the needy arrived she doled out to each person his allotted portion – his weekly gift. The amount varied depending on the person’s need, which was determined by the recipients’ family size. Most who came were regulars, which led me to assume that there was an unwritten rule among the needy that defined a person’s territory and household to which he had legitimate access. Moreover, watching mother’s interaction with the needy made it apparent that the giving and receiving of the dole followed a certain ritual that at least gave the process a social aura, rather than begging. (Let me hasten to add I do not wish to use the term begging nor shnoring or shnorers, for they are demeaning terms.)
The ritual made the process easier both for the receiver and for the giver. Each person arrived at a certain time, thereby eliminating the possible discomfort, and perhaps the shame, that would result from the face to face confrontation of two needy persons. No one came before ten in the morning because, prior to that time, mother was at the market buying the chickens, vegetables, and all the necessary items for the Sabbath meal.
When the needy persons arrived, they would come to the kitchen, which was the center of all daily activity. Of course, their first act was wishing good morning and then they AJT waited. Since most of them had a long standing relationship with my mother, they both knew why they were there. Nonetheless, to maintain the illusion of a social nature, the interaction began with chit-chat. Mother would inquire about his family’s health, frequently about the health of a certain family member who was known to be sickly. Sometimes other topics of interest were discussed, such as forthcoming simchas, and only then would she quietly approach him and stealthily give him his allotted money, wishing him a good Sabbath as he left. And so, the procession of the needy continued all morning into early afternoon.
But this was not the sum total of tzedokoh as performed by my family. Each fall, after a discussion between my parents, they committed themselves to help a yeshivah-bocher, namely a young student without means who came from an outlying village to study in the local yeshivoth. Many of them were from poor families and relied on the generosity of the city families. We lacked the space to give him a place to sleep, as all three of us, my brother, sister, and myself, slept in one room, but we could and did provide him with two of his daily meals – including Shabbat. This was known as “essen taygs:” the days of eating.
The young scholar came for lunch and dinner at certain times, and sat at the dinner table with us and was served food together with the family. Each year, the community arranged for another person to become part of our family’s table. And of course there were monies given to various kuppas- charitable associations that supported various causes. For instance, there was the kuppath cholim, the association who helped the indigent sick, the hevrah kadisha, the association that helped with the ritual of purifying and burying the dead, the many yeshivoth who were in constant need, collections for special community projects, and, of course, there were many shlichim, representatives of various schools who were collecting mostly for schools in Israel. But my father also had his special project – supporting the Hebrew Gymnasium, which he and seven other Zionists started, and where my brother and sister and I attended school. It was a Zionist parochial school where most subjects were taught in Hebrew.
Involvement with the Jewish community and the giving of tzedokoh was not unique to my family; it was a part of the Jewish way of life. Most Jews in the community taxed themselves and gave tzedokoh. The reason why my mother was involved in tzedokoh was simple – she accepted this dictum: “all Jews are responsible for each other.” She came from a home in which doing charitable work was important. She was well versed in the requirement of Jewish wives described in the book of Proverbs.
Tzedokoh, helping the poor, is a sine qua non in Jewish life. We recognize the existence of inequalities in life; we are told “the poor shall never cease to exist in your land, which is why [G-d tells us] ‘I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.’” This command is repeated many times in the Torah. For instance, we are also told, “if there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs….” These commandments not only led to the development of empathy for those who lack the basic needs of life, but it also made it our duty to alleviate the suffering of those who are a part of us. After all, we Jews are a single collective, hence Hillel taught; “if I am not for myself who am I?” Our sages used an organismic analogy to explain the responsibility that we have for each other’s welfare. When we allay other Jews’ suffering we ipso facto help our own self.
Jews, the sages tell us, are intrinsically tied to each other, and we comprise an organic unity. Israel, the sages tell us, can be compared to a hand that consists of five separated and yet integrated fingers. Hence, the sages ask: “If one finger gets infected and is in pain, does not the whole hand suffer?” It follows that when one Jew suffers it is felt by all other Jews.
The primary reason why we should help each other is founded primarily on intrinsic moral reasons – that is, that the act of helping others is good unto itself. Of course, moral reasoning is not an adequate motive for all people who ask: what do I get out of it? In short, many, if not most, people in general will ask, “what are my rewards for helping the poor?” For them, the sages also propose extrinsic motives. Those who will give tzedokoh will also be rewarded with a longer life span, with a better and happier life, with admission to the Gan Eyden (paradise) after death, and with the assurance of meriting a portion in Olam Habah, a place in the Messianic World.
Participating in and solving the needs of Jews does not exempt us from participating in and solving the problems of the larger community, of which we are also a part. Our ancient sage Mar Samuel of Nehardea proclaimed that Jews living in the Diaspora are part of and bound to the larger community and country. But as Jews, we also have unique needs. Each Shabbat we bless those who make it possible for the poor to participate in and enjoy the Shabbat, those who give candles for light, wine for Kiddush and havdalah and, of course, the means to make the Shabbat festive. It really doesn’t matter whether we give tzedokoh for extrinsic or intrinsic reasons. What is important is that involvement with the Jewish community, “betzochey tzibur,” facilitates the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, and that is a need above all others