Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Rambam - Laws of Charity 10:4 - Give With a Smile





“Anybody who gives charity with a bad disposition to a poor person, and whose face is bent downwards – even if he gave him 100 golden coins – he has destroyed his merit and lost it. Rather, he should give to him with a shining countenance and with happiness, and he should be empathetic with him regarding his difficulty. As it says, (Job 30:25) “Did I not cry for the heavily burdened, did I not sorrow for the destitute?” And he should speak words of consolation and comfort to him, as it says, (Job 29:13) “I would bring joyous song to the heart of a widow.”


Until this point, the Rambam has made us well aware of the need to give charity. In the previous law, he spoke of the importance of not hiding from giving. In this law he goes one step further. If a person realises that he does need to give, he may still do so grudgingly. He frowns, makes comments (of all sorts!) towards the receiver, and barely able to he extends his hand feeling tremendous pain as he parts with a few coins he has worked so hard to attain! Although giving is a Mitzvah, this does not mean one may do so in the way one wishes to do so. Just because one gives, does not permit one to “behave kindly” with a depressed demeanour. Even attitude is important and giving must be done generously with a smile!

What reason could a person possibly have for hiding from giving to another?! Imagine the scenario – which most of us encounter daily – of seeing another human being in pain. We turn our heads away. Perhaps we are embarrassed that they suffer. Or perhaps we wish to make out as though we simply haven’t even seen them.

For this reason the Torah constantly stresses the importance of “And you shall fear G‑d.” Our rabbis point out that these words very often follow from a teaching related to something where we can hide ourselves from. It’s quite easy to sit on a bus – for example – with our eyes glued to the book we are reading. An elderly person barely able to walk, gets onto the full bus looking for a seat. Being overly righteous, we keep our eyes glued to the book in our hands, pretending that we cannot see that maybe somebody does actually need the seat. We are certainly not to blame for not offering the seat – because there’s really nobody that can prove that we saw the elderly person even board. Nobody, of course, save for G-d Himself! And so the verse states, “And you shall fear G-d.” While it may be that we can fool others in making them think we simply cannot see their pain, G-d examines directly into the heart, there – where He is able to clearly see what our true motives are all about. We can take our thoughts and use them to run and hide from man, but when it comes to G-d, there is no such thing as hiding – anything!

It’s all too easy to keep up an image of righteousness in front of G-d, while hiding from man. When confronted as to why we do not help another in need, we can easily reply that we simply have no knowledge of their pain. And “in truth” nobody will be the wiser. It could well be that we lack the understanding to know of another’s pain – or perhaps we may have not even heard of it. But Someone still does know the real truth.

And so, the Rambam cautions us concerning the issue of hiding. We cannot hide – and therefore, we should learn an additional lesson. Not only is ‘hiding’ something we should stay far away from, but even giving to another with a bad demeanour is something we should run from – in the same way we would run from a fire ready to consume all in its path!

It’s all too easy to imagine that everything in our lives is just fine, and that G-d can take care of the rest of the world. If another is in pain, let him pray for G-d’s mercy upon Him. As for me, I have taken care of myself and my family. All is well in the world! Perhaps, he could even learn a lesson from me – if only he’d just go to university, study hard and actually contribute something to society – just like I am doing! The strength and power of my own hands have brought me this – and G-d helps those who help themselves – if only he would just do something to actually help himself! We tend to feel that so long as we are taking care of ourselves no harm could possibly befall us. The difficulties of wealth only affect those not willing to behave in the ‘normal’ ways of living, getting a steady job etc. But as for our “success” – we have learned the rules of life and are therefore no longer susceptible to the possibilities of poverty.

Were it not for the Torah, we might come to learn life from the (wrong) animals in the world. Seeing how the larger fish swallow the smaller ones, we may well feel that this is what life is all about. So long as I can take care of myself, no matter who may be in the way, I have fulfilled my duties. Perhaps others need to learn these lessons of life too – we think…

Therefore the Rambam “pulls no punches” and tells things as they should be told. When it comes to the world we live in – there are indeed other people in it. And G-d has designed the world in such a fashion as to give more to certain people than to others – not so that they should be able to view their bank balances increasing each month, but rather so that they be able to give more to those in need. In fact, charity is the very vessel for wealth. And therefore, giving is its own blessing for receiving more.

But giving is still not good enough. Giving is about identifying oneself (literally) with the other who may be in pain. One of the greatest pains that any of us can experience is to find ourselves without a coin to our names.


For those never having been in such a situation, perhaps a short meditation would be worthwhile. One in which we close our eyes to imagine what life may be like – tomorrow when we wake up – and find as the day begins, that we have no means of purchasing food for the day. No means to purchase a garment – and to replace the one worn for the past 10 years… No means to pay the rent for the month, and in the post box, a letter of demand to be evicted immediately. Perhaps, the meditation should continue to include that on this morning that we awaken, we find we have no relatives to help, no family at all. And while we awaken relatively healthy to take on the day – we truly have no idea where to turn and who to ask for help. Imagine this for just 15 minutes and contemplate the absolute devastation a person would feel were this to happen to him. What would he do?

And yet, because we are not yet living in the world of redemption – one where peace reigns and everybody is blessed with all their hearts desires for the good – there are indeed many people experiencing these very situations – daily.

Each day, we encounter some of these people. Sometimes, however, we feel we already know their situation. They seem to have shoes on – even though they have holes in them. They seem to be wearing garments – although they are simply filthy. They speak – just like we do. Perhaps the only thing that bothers us is the totally destitute situation they have ended up in. We feel sorry, bend our heads down, unable to help at all. And as we do so, we feel that perhaps we have even fulfilled a Mitzvah. This way, this person may well realise that he cannot rely on others, and he should get himself a “real job” – just like we have!

Job (not the type we have each day) – who is quoted in this Rambam, teaching us the value of empathy – a once wealthy man who lived some two to three thousand and more years ago – and later afflicted with the most terrible of physical situations, losing his wealth, his family and being afflicted with bodily growths and discomfort – understood well what empathy meant. A person in pain deserves nothing less than our total empathy. His tears of pain should affect us so that we too feel just as he does, breaking us down as well. And to those that require some sort of uplifting, our duty is to provide it to the other.

A story is told regarding the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. He once asked his father – the Rebbe before him – the Rashab, what part of being a Rebbe he found “the most difficult”. His father explained, it was the “changing of the garments.” The previous Rebbe – not yet Rebbe, asked his father to explain. The Rashab elucidated: When a Jew comes to me sharing his suffering and asking for help, I must understand him completely. I do this by removing my own ‘garments,’ and I then clothe myself in his. When I do this, I literally become like him feeling every part of him as if I were him. I am then able to understand him fully, able to give him advice, and help him. When he leaves, I return to him his ‘garments,’ once again putting on my own. Thereafter the next Jew enters with his own tremendous difficulties in life. I once again go through this process.

Imagine for a moment how tired we would become if we were to take off our physical garments and put on someone else’s, and thereafter repeat this process each time we met another – how totally exhausted we would become! Imagine what it could feel like to place over oneself – or into oneself – the soul of another… and then to remove it later, only to once again put on the soul of yet another – and so on… imagine the exhaustion?!

This is true empathy, true kindness, true love. It’s the ultimate way of saying, “I need to be you to understand you”. I cannot turn my head away – G-d forbid, no matter what you are asking for. Instead, I must – even for just a moment – see life through your eyes, feel it – through your body – and through your soul. I must know who you are, even though I am me. And I must become you – even for just a moment – no matter how lowly I could ever think you are…

The Rambam makes sense. Giving charity is about turning towards the other, not away from him. It means giving with a smiling countenance, a radiating face, a glowing aura of enthusiasm – to help the other, no matter how trivial their problems may seem, their financial predicament or their disposition in life in general – and no matter how much they need. There are no limitations when it comes to aiding others – let alone ourselves. The pain of another, is our own. When we realise for just a moment, that in fact, we are truly one body with one heart, two lungs, a stomach, brains and much more – then so too, as a body works in unity causing it to be in a state of health – so too the Jewish people are in need of each person connecting with the other.

A head turned away is a brain cell that has become dead, unable to give life to a part of the body in need. A happy countenance and a cheerful attitude of giving – always – is a brain cell sparked with fire to strengthen another – and in this way, to come back directly to ourselves – and strengthen ourselves as well.

It’s really a win-win. We give to another, and yet another – gives back to us. And so the root letters for the Hebrew word for giving are Nun Tav Nun - נתן. These letters can be spelled backwards the same way as they are spelled forwards – for when one gives, one receives at least an equal measure in return. If we turn and hide – frowning, grumbling and complaining as we give another, then this “giving” will certainly come back to us, and if we smile as we give, we will receive this smile from another as well.

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