Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Rambam - Laws of Charity 10:5 - If You are Unable to Give, Sympathise With Another







“If a poor person asks from you, and you don’t have anything available at all to give him – appease him with words. And it is forbidden to rebuke the poor or to raise one’s voice at him in a shouting manner, since his heart is broken and depressed. And it says, (Psalms 51:19) ‘A broken and depressed heart, G-d, you will not despise.’ And woe to one who embarrasses a poor person. Woe to him! But rather, one should be like a father to him, whether in mercy or in words – as it says, (Job 29:16) ‘I was a father to the destitute.’”


Giving is a given! Not only must we give, but there are ways to give as well. More than this, it is necessary for us to learn how to give with a smiling countenance. At the very least, we need to work at not having a sour disposition when we hand over a gift to one in need. These are the teachings of the Rambam until now..

Sometimes, however, we truly don’t have the ability to give. We ourselves need to take care of our own selves and our own families. In such a situation, when a poor person comes asking for help, we are still not exempt from the Mitzvah of giving. While we cannot give monetarily, we are still able to give in other ways. One way is to simply smile, to offer words of consolation. All the more so – since we ourselves can truly feel at that point in time the difficulty of providing for ourselves. We must learn to be sympathetic to the needs of another as well. He too is in such a position – and maybe an ever worse one. Therefore, our feelings of sympathy should be automatic. There should be no need to have to think them through.

Our immediate reaction should be one of warmth and kindness. “I am sorry that I cannot help you,” is also a way of saying that I acknowledge your need. It can be said with warmth and a emotionally caring smile. One can perhaps hold another’s hand in a way of comfort, offer a blessing (as even the blessing of a simple person can have great effects!) One can offer a prayer for them – immediately and to have them in mind every single day thereafter. One can offer words of encouragement – that this other person should have the strength to continue on and not to give up – even when everything seems over.

Shouting and rebuking a poor man do nothing for anybody. They do not help the poor man sort out his problems any more than they help the angry person to deal with his own life issues. In fact, it can only add to increasing one’s heart rate, feeling a little too hot, and perhaps even lead one to becoming ill. In addition, the after-effects are most unwelcome too. These may include turning to a family member in anger after the event – and shouting at them as well. How often do we find ourselves in such a position? Immediately after being approached for money from another, we turn to our friends complaining of the constant bombardment of other people who need our help (something which should actually make us feel good – as it gives us the opportunity to be more like G-d – a giver!)

The way to encourage anything is never through words of rebuke and judgement, but rather through words of kindness and compassion.

King David points out that when it comes to returning to G-d through repentance – then when one has nothing left, except for a broken heart, then G-d will not despise this and will accept his Teshuva. In fact, as the Rebbe of Kotsk would say, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”

A broken heart is a sign of nothingness. When a broken-hearted person is attacked because of his lack of wealth and the like, this does nothing positive for him. It can only help in causing him further complications and depression. He is in need of active help – this is our Mitzvah.

Job, having amongst other pains, been afflicted with losing his entire family and all his wealth, tells G-d that even he – before his poverty – would act as a father to those in need.

While we may feel that we constantly have the right to rebuke those with less than we have, we should make ourselves aware – once again – that G-d is still in charge of all of us. What we have is His gift to us – always. When we show anger at one who does not have – we do nothing more than admit to ourselves that in truth we are deserving of everything we have – the power and strength of my own hands! When we comfort another, we admit that G-d is in charge of us all. We sympathise with another – and elicit mercy from above, so that this other person should also enjoy the benefits of the physical world.

Totally consumed in a Torah world of spiritual greatness and purity, we are forever seeing the spiritual faults in others, ready to criticise another at the first opportunity available. While we focus on another’s spiritual lack, do we also pay the same attention to the lack of physical comforts that another lacks?!

A famous story is told regarding the Tzaddik Rabbi Aryeh Levin. When the children attending the Yeshiva would pass through the doors of the Yeshiva, he would concentrate on each one with great attention. Someone once asked him if he was perhaps thinking of how all the boys were doing… Reuven had just finished Tanach, Shimon had finished a Seder of Mishnayot etc. Rabbi Aryeh Levin told this person that this was not what he thought about at all. He would consider Reuven – but he noticed that his shoes were old – Shimon, that his pants had holes in them… Levi that his shirt was dirty and he needed a new one!

The holy Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) would say, “Make another person’s physical needs your spiritual needs, and your spiritual needs – his physical needs.” Our focus – first and foremost is to see that another person is able to deal with simply coping with the physical difficulties of life. Once a person has all his needs in a physical manner, he will be able to tackle the challenges of growing spiritually. But a person without a roof over his head, clothes on his body and food in his stomach – will not have the ability to concentrate on a page of Gemara for very long! When we have done this, we can certainly continue with providing for another’s spiritual life as well. Meanwhile, even a smile can help. A warm hand. A word of encouragement and kindness.


You’re taking care of yourself and your family – but you’re really just getting by. Imagine the doorbell ringing. You answer, to find a man garbed in rags. He is in need of financial support. You could easily ask him a dozen questions as to how he ended up in such poverty and could actually take an interest in his life… but first impressions last the longest, and you’re already on the defence. He asks for a Dollar. You truly have none.

  1. See yourself shouting at him, rebuking him, insulting him for having fallen so low in life.
    1. How does this make you feel?
    2. How do you think it makes the poor man feel?
    3. Could you ever imagine that this could be you?
    4. Will you be able to sleep well that night as you consider that maybe he too is a human being in need of help and assistance – just as you are.

  1. Imagine the doorbell rings. You answer it to find the same man. But this time, instead of shouting and rebuking, you realise his pain and difficulty. You still have no money to give him. This time however, you offer an encouraging word. Perhaps you’re able to bring him a glass of water. You bless him sincerely, and perhaps feel a sudden jolt inside yourself as you realise the pain he must go through each and every day, the embarrassment and heartache – constantly.
    1. How do you feel for this poor man now?
    2. Do you consider that if it were not for G-d’s blessing, that you too could be in such a situation? And if not you… it may be your children?
    3. Will your sleep be meaningful – making you aware that we all need G‑ds help in everything we do and in everything we have?

The Rambam teaches us what it means to care. One cannot always give everybody everything they need. But one can care for another. Who knows, it may even make you feel more G-dly. More than this, it make actually make you more G-dly!

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