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A Column in Three Scenes

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Giving of themselves because it is a mitzvah to do so

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


cene 1: A poor man is at the door asking for help. The homeowner is in a very good mood, and gives him ten dollars.

Scene 2: A poor man is at the door asking for help. The homeowner knows it is a mitzvah/commandment to give tzedakah, and gives him ten dollars.

Which one of these donors is preferable in the eyes of Judaism? At first glance, most would choose Scene 1, because he exemplifies kindness and consideration, whereas in Scene 2 he is giving only because he is commanded to do so.

And yet, the Talmud states that gadol hametzuveh v’oseh mi’mi she’eino metzuveh v’oseh, “greater is he who acts because he is so commanded than he who acts on his own volition” (Kiddushin 31a). This seems counterintuitive, but upon examination it reveals a crucial insight into human nature and into the service of G-d. Because if the giver in Scene 1 should happen to be in a foul mood, he might well shut the door in the face of the poor man, embarrass him, and give him nothing. By contrast in Scene 2, no matter how he feels, he will give because he must give, since it is a commandment to do so, and the commandment transcends one’s personal feelings. His giving will not be sporadic but consistent. Granted, ideally the giving should be both from a good heart and from a desire to fulfill the mitzvah, but doing a mitzvah is not an optional matter. It is an objective and not a subjective act.

I thought of this when I saw the results of a recent survey (Hashavua, Feb. 20, 2019), which shows that, in Israel, the more Orthodox one is, the more does one give money or volunteer time to tzedakah; and the less observant one is, the less does one give of his money or his time — with the highest percentage of tzedakah support coming from the chareidim, who happen to be the poorest sector in Israel. (This is hardly the behavior of people whom the secular media robotically calls “parasites.”)

Does this mean the chareidim are the kindest and most benevolent of any sector of the Israeli population? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that chareidim give of themselves because it is a mitzvah to do so, and not because of personal considerations or feelings.

There is a still deeper point in the Talmud’s viewpoint, and that is that action creates the emotion, and not the reverse. That is, if one waits to be in the right mood before doing a mitzvah, that might take an eternity. On the other hand, the very act of doing can create the right mood. Constant giving of tzedakah creates a love for tzedakah. Constant davening creates a feeling for davening. Constant observance of Shabbos creates a reverence for Shabbos. The act engenders the feeling.

This is what King David meant in Tehillim 34:9: “Taamu u’reu — Taste and you will see….” First you have to taste, then you will do. To theorize before you act might result in good philosophy, but not in good action.

This is what Israel meant at Sinai when it said naaseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will understand,” when on the face of it, the understanding should precede the doing. But once again, the very act of doing creates the understanding. Not only is the wish father to the thought; the act is father to the thought.

What this means is that the homeowner in Scene 2, though he now is giving out of a sense of duty, will ultimately be giving because of both kindness and duty — the kindness having been nurtured by his religious adherence to duty. Even when he is not in a good mood.

And thus is born Scene 3.

 (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 752)


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