Thursday, 16 September 2010
We are All Beggars
The Chofetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan (1839-1933) wrote some of the most well read works in Jewish law today. His Mishna Berurah – a commentary on the first section of the Code of Jewish law – the Shulchan Aruch – is accepted as being one of the most studied works in regular Yeshiva life today. In today's times, when it comes to understanding day-to-day Halachah, it is to the Mishna Berurah that we turn.
In addition to this masterpiece, the Chofetz Chaim wrote additional authoritative books, including a work encompassing all the laws of forbidden speech taken from the entire Talmud (and other works) – entitled "Chofetz Chaim" and a work encompassing the entire gamut of Midrash related material sharing the beauty as to the importance of observing these laws of forbidden speech – entitled "Shemirat HaLashon."
There is however another beautiful work that is in need of much study. "Ahavat Chessed" is the Chofetz Chaim's summary of the laws of kindness towards a fellow Jew. He takes one from the laws of loaning money to simply dealing with what kindness is all about. Of course all these books mentioned above are in need of study on a regular basis, and in fact there are structured programs allowing one to finish studying them every single year (and so should they be!)
At the very beginning of his second section of the book, the Chofetz Chaim awakens us into appreciating a fact that most of us never really think about.
Let's first put ourselves in our own shoes as we hear that knock at the door… We all know the feelings we get on seeing a "beggar" at the door. Thousands of thoughts fill our heads immediately as we begin to come up with excuses as to why not to give. "Why can't he get a regular job?" or perhaps, "Why can't he manage to live on less?!" Then we think up such things as, "Why must *I* always be the person to help when others have so much more than I do?" We even go so far as to perhaps recommending an entire plan of action as to how he/she should live his/her life and actually tell them to their faces – often with a most unwelcome slamming of the door in their faces.
It seems we're all authorities when it comes to the financial lives of others, knowing exactly how they should be living (and when they're demanding too much from us wanting more than their due!) We often know where they should go to shop for cheaper things. We can often give them tens of phone numbers to call of people who "can help." In short, we much prefer telling others off and making them clearly aware that as for ourselves, we're all taken care of! Now… it's up to them to "get a life" and stop becoming burdens on society!
But are we really all taken care of?! Even the most wealthy?! Are they really as independent as they think they are? Or is it maybe – somewhere possible to imagine that just like this beggar – they too are beggars in their own lives?! Perhaps the man at the door is simply a little worse off. But when it comes to real life, we are all in fact in exactly the same boat.
And so the Chofetz Chaim comes in to tell us the truth of each of our lives. In fact, loving kindness is an attribute we all best take to heart – immediately. The reason? We all need it! Every single one of us. The poorest of the poor, is in reality – no less independent than the wealthiest of the wealthy. Though the false illusion appears to distract us from the reality, every single one of us is in need of someone else, of something!
When G-d created man, He created him in His own image. But what exactly is the image of G-d?! G-d is the very Essence of good – of kindness, of the aspect of giving. If there is one trait clearly visible it is the fact that He gives. "G-d is good to all" (Psalms 145:9) and, "He gives bread to all flesh – for His kindness is everlasting" (Psalms 136:25).
The world around us, nature, people, everything – it is all something that G-d has brought about – for us. To be created in His image is to be built with the quality of kindness, of giving. To push this aspect of ourselves aside – ever – is to remove (at least at that moment in time when it is actually needed) the image of G-d that has been imprinted into each one of us. Our very being is about doing an act of kindness to another. The entire world exists – only because of kindness. As King David teaches, "The world is built upon kindness" (Psalms 89:3)
In fact, the entire world exists solely on acts of kindness – nothing else! Every day, every moment, every person and every thing – exists solely because of some force of kindness that is acting upon it at that point in time. Even the wealthiest cannot exist without a constant force of kindness acting upon them (though they not even be aware of it!)
The Chofetz Chaim points out regarding the well known story of Sodom and Gemorrah. Here was a self-sufficient town filled with only the wealthiest of the wealthy. In fact the entire area was sealed off – except to those who already had wealth. The poor man would not dare to enter – lest he be killed. Poverty was not for these cities. Anybody entering the city in the hope of someone else giving him wealth – may just as well have entered an inferno!
Sodom and Gemorrah had absolutely no need to interact with any other city in the entire world. It was completely self-sufficient. There would never be any need for political fighting of any kind – because they kept solely to themselves. They neither took from anyone (having everything already!) nor did they give to anyone. They simply existed on their own… It was *this* very thing that lead G-d to destroy the city. It was a city that could not exist, because to put it simply – there was no kindness. Nobody was willing to give to anyone. Everyone felt that they already had, and therefore had no need to give to another. This is not G-dly. This is not the Divine Will of this world. This is the antithesis of what G-d wants – a world filled with kindness – with everyone continually giving to everyone else!
Today, there is no longer a trace of those cities. They could have no existence today – because they never had any existence – even then!
Let's now view our own lives for just a moment. As we do so, we will see that there is not a moment that goes by without us needing the assistance of another (and hence why solitary confinement is such a superb punishment to make the greatest of the great go absolutely mad!)
Of course, we can always turn our heads up at the beggar who "begs" for help. We can tell him how he should live his life – and stop depending on society with such burdens! Or we can realise, we are no different…
Every person goes through a variety of life experiences. To each experience, he will need assistance. Sometimes, one needs the financial help of a friend. Even the wealthy require financial help. Many times they wish to expand multi-million dollar businesses and must consult with big loan companies in order to acquire the finance they need to become even bigger. But do they ever consider this to be a form of begging – after all they are wealthy enough as it is?!"
Sometimes a person needs the help of another to find work. And even when wealthy – if work does not constantly come through (if clients do not constantly come through) the wealthy man will become poor… soon! Here lies the positive Mitzvah of, "And you shall strengthen him… and he should live *with* you" (Leviticus 25:25). Of course, this includes every single person!
Sometimes a person requires the kindness of his friend to help with his bodily needs, for example when he has a Simcha! It won't be much fun if others are not around to enjoy it! What good would a wedding be if there were no guests, no band, no caterers?! Everybody realises then that they must get help from others in order to have their own happiness in life!
When one is sad, one needs the assistance of friends to console him and to speak gently to him. Here we see the Mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim – comforting mourners (for example.) And such a person needs the friendship of others to help cheer him up!
Sometimes one must travel. Here too one needs the assistance of others. It may be that we need help finding our way around a new place, or assistance in finding out where to eat, the cost of things etc. Often one may even need the assistance of another for directions – or even to find a bathroom in a hurry! Hopefully there will be someone who will help us when we need such things in an emergency situation!
When we are invited as guests, we need the help of the host to make us feel welcome. When one is ill, one needs the help of others – to visit him and to help provide him with his needs, as he may be confined to bed. One can then surely realise just how much we are dependent on others. Even the wealthiest of the wealthy can find themselves confined to bed needing the assistance of those – who lack money, who have barely enough to live on… Yet it is their assistance that he may need. This falls under the commandment of Bikkur Cholim – of visiting the sick.
And when each of us dies, we need the most ultimate kindness of all. The Torah calls this the Kindness of Truth, because it is a kindness to which nobody will ever be repaid. When one dies, one is in need of the assistance of others to see to one's burial. The body will not manage to clean itself and walk to it's grave by itself – and then cover itself with soil. Rather, it will be through the kindness of others that after death, a person's body will be dealt with honourably until the last mound of dust is placed upon it.
The short of it is that the world would cease to exist were it not for the attribute of kindness. Were it not for kindness, none of us would be able to get through life – because it is through the constant kindness of others that we are fortunate enough to manage to get through our lives and obtain the things we need. Not even the wealthiest man in the world would be able to attain all these things with just his wealth alone.
And therefore, when we encounter a man who asks for nothing more than just some money to live – we should do well to consider how life is made up of continual kindnesses. Today, he is in need of the kindness of wealth (no matter how much!) Tomorrow, the giver of that money may be in need of assistance as he lies in bed. And who knows? The next day, the "beggar" may be the very person who takes care of, and buries the wealthy man… But will the wealthy man then feel disgust towards his "intruder" the previous day?!
Our obligation is to strengthen ourselves tremendously in this awesome attribute. Our obligation is to realise that even if we are doing fine in terms of wealth – we are all in essence "beggars".
Of course, the real beggars can find out for themselves if they ever feel that way. As we stand in Shul on the holy day of Yom Kippur – a day filled with prayer, repentance – and forgiveness, we realise that actually, without the kindness of G-d, we are truly nothing. At that point in time, as we stand praying, we identify well, that all is in His hands… the wealth we will receive in the coming year, the health… our family life and children… all is in His hands. Will you be asking for something this year?! Might there be a smudge of "begging" going on?! Can it be that we could ever be beggars? Even the most wealthy?!
It can! And if so, we must certainly reflect hard in our hearts back at our thoughts and our speech as we turn to "open the door" each time we encounter another asking for help. As we do so, we realise, we are truly no better than they. Perhaps – they are even greater than we – though they seem to ask us for our help! Perhaps they will help us tomorrow. Who knows, it may be their very kindness that one day ensures each of us is buried honourably and given the respect each of us is truly due. Today he is but a beggar worth nothing… Tomorrow – he is our "life saviour!" let us think twice before slamming the door, before advising him how he should live his life, before demeaning or embarrassing him. We are no different to him. Just that today we are on the inside of that door and he is on the outside. Tomorrow, however, things may be quite different.