Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
A Running Servant
I have always wrestled with the following Talmudic teaching.
The Torah states, “If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land that the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.” (1)
Noting the words, “sufficient for his needs” the Talmud posits that you are not commanded to make him wealthy. Noting the words “his needs, which he is lacking,” the Talmud posits that we should provide the amenities to which he was formerly accustomed; even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him. (2)
This passage always bothered me. Why should we allocate time and money to provide this person with luxuries, when others might be starving for bread? Further, is it even considered an act of charity when we satisfy egos rather than needs?
I also wondered about the apparent contradiction between the two passages. If we are not commanded to make them wealthy, why must we provide a servant to run before those accustomed to such wealth?
The Gown Library
I want to introduce you to a novel institution called the Gown Gemach or in English, the Gown Loan Society. These institutions cater to families blessed with many children, who are, in turn, also blessed with many life cycle milestones such as Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and the like. These affairs are of course costly and with large families there is always a sibling, aunt or nephew celebrating a simcha. It is difficult for large families to outfit their children with beautiful gowns for these many events.
Enter the free loan society; the organization that collects new and previously loved gowns, which they loan out to families that cannot afford to purchase their own. For their effort they receive the satisfaction of bringing a smile to faces that might otherwise have gone without.
I have always known of these societies, but never paid them much heed. After all, it is not often that a Rabbi dons a wedding gown… I recently visited one such society and came away with an entirely new respect for the dedication and beneficence of these people.
I know many generous souls that would reject this form of giving. Why should I part with my hard earned money to provide others with luxuries, I can hear them ask. They obviously found a way to afford the catering, music and photography, let them find away to outfit their children too. I can hear the real cynics go so far as to say, these families chose to have many children and should make the compromises that their situation calls for. I would willingly give them money for food and clothing, but a gown? Let them make do with a simple dress!
Several days ago I might have agreed with these arguments, but that changed when I saw little girls, awash in smiles, bedecked in a luxury they could never afford. Absent these societies, they would have been outfitted with simpler attire; the parents simply couldn’t have justified the extra expense. Watching these girls twirl about in borrowed splendor I mused, why should these children not get to feel good about themselves at their simcha. Belonging to large families should not mean that they might never experience the thrill of a beautiful gown.
Yes I realize how shallow and decadent is this way of thinking, but that is for me to apply to my own way of thinking. It is wrong for me to be virtuous on the little girl’s account. Surely there are remarkable people who are completely unaffected by the nature of their apparel, but most people have not yet reached that level and the people that run this society cater to the delights of these little girls.
I paused for a moment and thought. When we provide bread for the hungry we receive the satisfaction that comes from providing a vital need. The lovely souls that run these societies provide a kindness without the added benefit of such satisfaction. All they accomplish is to bring a smile to a deprived face, but they don’t get the inflated sense of self importance that comes from providing a crucial service to humanity. This is pure kindness.
As I was thinking these charitable thoughts a woman browsing through the racks rudely complained about a particular point of protocol. Rather than appreciating the kindness of the organization, she took to making unreasonable demands.
It was here that I saw the true piety of the woman behind the counter. Rather than taking umbrage at the blatant ingratitude, she calmly explained her policy and gently apologized for any inconvenience.
I approached the woman and quietly applauded her sensitivity and demeanor, to which she responded with a rueful smile. She informed me that she stays positive by focusing on her purpose; to enhance joy at joyful events. Lifecycle events are often stressful, but if she could enhance the joy of a young lady and contribute to her sense of well being by turning her out in elegant finery, she has received her reward. She does not require gratitude; only rectitude. Happy faces are reward enough.
The Truest Form
I finally understood the difficult passages quoted above. Charity in the traditional sense means to provide for the needs of the impoverished; not providing luxuries. We are not commanded to make them wealthy and one is quite justified in refusing to provide the poor with more than they need.
However, who is to determine the definition of wealth? Horses and servants are not ordinarily considered vital needs and the poor can usually make do without them. But if they were formerly accustomed to such finery, they will feel deprived despite the bread that we provide. Their former friends will still enjoy this luxury and not having it now will cut all the deeper.
The truest form of charity is to provide without discrimination. This means that we leave it to the poor to decide what is important and what is not. You and I might consider a gown a waste of charitable funds, but explain that to the five year old who waltzed across the floor of the society’s show room. Tell it to the pleasant woman behind the counter, who spends her evenings creating bright smiles.
1. Deuteronomy 7:8.
2. Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 67b.