Hello - I'm wondering if there are any laws or guidelines about our obligations to those that help us. I'm familiar with the concepts of tzedakah that refer to charitable acts and methods of giving, but am seeking suggestions or links for appropriate guidelines when one receives or is the one who is assisted. Thanks kindly in advance, Kathryn
Assisting those in need, whether through Tzedakah (righteous giving) or Chesed (acts of loving-kindness), not only fulfills core moral and religious Jewish obligations, but cultivates and nurtures our inner virtue, allowing us to emulate God. The Torah commands us to give Tzedakah in a number of places, and acts of Chesed are subsumed under the biblical mandate to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). While Tzedakah is performed through material goods (e.g. food, clothing, money) and is ideally bestowed in complete anonymity, Chesed is primarily realized through acts and behavior (e.g., visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved) and depends on the performer and the recipient knowing each other. Tzedakah sustains our world, but Chesed builds up our world and knits people together in the fabric of community and society: “The World is built on Chesed” (Psalms 89:3).
Neither Tzedakah nor Chesed incur debt on behalf of the recipient. However, as appropriate, expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving to both God and to God’s human partners, i.e., the giver of Tzedakah or doer of Chesed, is fitting and likely religiously required (loving our neighbor as ourselves works both ways in this imbalanced situation of giver and receiver). In certain circumstances where there has not been anonymity, it may be praiseworthy to return the charitable gift of another should the receiver be in a position to do so. This is for the benefit of the receiver, who can fully reclaim the dignity of self-reliance, as well for the giver who may feel entitled to repayment, even if there exists no obligatory debt. For example, if one friend gifts another friend in need the necessary funds and the receiver later is in a position to return the gift, despite the understanding that the original exchange was not a loan, but a gift.
While neither Tzedakah or Chesed incur debt, there may be acts of generosity that do incur debt. For example, in Jewish law, one of the supreme obligations is to help ransom a captive – Pidyon Shivuyim. It takes precedence over Tzedakah and we even sell community Torahs to gain the freedom of a captive. Our rabbis understood the outlay of monies for ransom to be more akin to a loan, rather than required Tzedakah, and thus if the redeemed captive has the financial resources, he or she is obligated to repay his/her redeemer (see Tosafot Baba Kama 51a s.v. ‘ie name; Ramo, Sh”A Y”D 252:12).
Beyond expressions of gratitude, absent the incurring of debt, there is an expectation that should an impoverished person experience a reversal of fortune, the person, who in the past has received help, and now him/herself is in a position to help others, will indeed do so and “pay it forward.”
Maimonides concludes his “Laws of Gifts of the Poor” as follows:
Any person who does not need to take [charity] and deceives the people and takes will not reach old age and die until he requires assistance from people at large. He is among those of whom it is said [Jeremiah 17:5]: "Cursed be a person who trusts in mortals." [Conversely,] anyone who needs to take [charity] and cannot exist unless he takes, e.g., an elderly man, sick, or beset by afflictions, but is proud and does not take is considered as a murder. He is liable for his soul and all that he has earned through his hardship is sin and guilt. But anyone who needs to take [charity], but causes himself affliction and temporarily constrains himself and lives a life of difficulty so that he will not overburden the community will not reach old age and die before he provides sustenance for others from his own means. Concerning such a person and those like him, it is stated [ibid.:7]: Blessed be a person who trusts in God. Blessed be the Merciful One who grants assistance” (see also Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 255: 1-2).
Clearly, it is best not to rely on the generosity of others, even if it means living in slight discomfort. At the same time, should it be necessary to rely on the generosity of others it would be sinful to refuse help. However, in all circumstances, the goal is to achieve a situation in life in which we can be of help and benefit to others and give Tzedakah and do Chesed.
We all have resources of one form or another. Some of us may be financially rich, some may enjoy the riches of knowledge and wisdom, others may technically adept, handy, artistic, have time and energy, etc.. Whatever our resources, we should allocate at least some of them to the benefit of others’ welfare. And if we find ourselves impoverished to the extent that we can barely share anything, if at all, with others, may God bless us to find the courage, strength and opportunity to reverse our situation. “He (i.e., God) raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the ash heap” (Psalms 113:7).
There are several rules in Judaism that are designed specifically to preserve the anonymity of the donor. For instance, Purim gifts are delivered through an agent so that the recipient will not know the identity of the giver. Similarly, Maimonides places a gift given anonymously ahead of a gift given when the donor is known. The Talmud tells of a rabbi who would drop coins for the poor in such a way that he would not see them and they would not see him. It seems that our tradition aims at ensuring that the recipient not know the benefactor. It is not just exposing the needy to potential embarrassment that is a concern. It is also an implicit objective to prevent the needy from feeling beholden to another. The receiver may appropriately feel gratitude for the generosity of others but should not feel compelled to repay it in some way. This does not mean that one should not acknowledge a gift given in other circumstances. Propriety demands that when a host receives a gift from a guest that the guest is duly thanked. The same would apply to sending “Thank You” notes for wedding or Bar Mitzvah gifts.
I am fascinated by and grateful for this query, especially because I have never considered that there should be any other response to another's kindness than gratitude, appreciation. Additionally, with other questions, even just my first reading (by which I mean before any research), generally evokes some references in our tradition, but my initial interest in Kathryn's inquiry was heightened by an almost stark awareness that I have never thought about this issue as other than self evident before.
So some of my "fresh" thoughts…
1. Consider that the heart of Jewish worship is appreciation. Our form of prayer focuses more on thank you, than it does on please I want/need/have to have. If that be true about our connection with deity, would that not also be the case in our dealings with the images of the divine, namely other people.
2. Consider the story of Pharaoh's cupbearer. After too long, he remembers Joseph's kindness and the result is Joseph's release from prison. Homiletically, if after two years, acknowledging one's debt has that kind of power, what might we with our more immediate opportunity for recognition unleash?
3. Consider Aaron's example. Our tradition portrays him as the ultimate peacemaker, a bridge builder, even between enemies. Again, if a willingness to "stretch" the truth (for such among the methods our sages attribute to Aaron) is praiseworthy in order to bring people into harmony, how much more would be accomplished when we are the recipients of another's kindness, were we to express the fullest gratitude possible.
4. Consider the lesson of Tzedakah. As opposed to the Mark Twain bromide, "I once did that person a favor and he never forgave me," our tradition does suggest some notion of guideline or obligation. This may be captured in the conviction that even those who are sustained by Tzedakah must give Tzedakah. In short, we are all obligated and privileged to "play it forward," to pass it on.
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