Ki Tissah I - TWO KINDS OF BENEVOLENCE
THE SIDRAH of the week begins with the command to every man in Israel to give half a shekel for the upkeep of the house of God.
There are two major ways of helping others. One is referred to as zedakah --charity; the other is known as gemilat chassidim, as a loan or extending a helping hand. Both represent a sincere and praiseworthy effort to help people in the hour of their need. The difference between them is in the time when the aid is offered. A gimilat chessed is extended to a man who is still on his own but who faces the danger of financial ruin. All he needs to keep his head above water is a little encouragement in the form of a loan or an extension of credit. If he gets it, he will be able to see his way through, stage a comeback and maintain his position of independence and esteem in the community. If he fails to get such help, he is sure to meet enonomic ruin and social disgrace.
Tzedakah, on the other hand, refers to the act of giving charity to one who is financially down and out--who needs a handout for food, clothing and shelter.
If I were to stop a number of people in the street and ask their opinion as to which of these two acts of kindness represented a greater mitzvah, I am inclined to believe that most would say that tzedakah is superior to gemilat chassidim. Tzedakah, they would argue, is given to one who will use every penny to sustain himself, whereas the person who is the beneficiary of a gemilat chessed is not in as critical a situation as the former.
The rabbis of the Talmud, however, had a different view on this subject. They said gedolah gemilat chassadim yoter min ha'tzedakah. Granting a loan, extending credit to a deserving person, or helping him in any other tangible manner is a greater mitzvah than outright charity. In the first instance one permits an individual to maintain his dignity and standing in the community; in the other the recipient is embarrassed and sometimes even pauperized. Both are praiseworthy, but gemilat chassidim is superior to tzedakah.
This thought is underscored in a verse in the Torah. "When your brother is in need you should stretch your hand unto him, vehechezaktah bo --and you should strengthen him" (Lev. 25:35). It is the duty of a Jew to help a fellow from falling, so that he may continue to live imcha --on the same level and on an equal standard with the others in the community.
The story is told of a sinful man who died and appeared before the Heavenly Tribunal. The Court was about to condemn him to Gehenna, when his counsel called the attention of the Judges to an unusual act of gemilat chassidim that the sinner had once performed. During the rainy season, a poor peddler had the misfortune of having his horse and wagon bog down in the deep mud. The wares were ruined and the poor fellow was in misery. When this man saw the trouble the peddler was in, he helped him pull the horse and wagon out of the mire and extended a loan to enable the poor man to buy a new stock of wares. Upon hearing this incident, the Court ordered that they put the horse, the wagon and the wares on the scales of justice. But even these did not outweigh the sins of the accused man. Whereupon the counsel pleaded, "Since the horse and wagon were entirely covered with mud, let the mud also be put on the scales." His request was granted, and the mud tipped the scales. The sinner was thus saved from Gehenna by an act of gemilat chassadim.
The fact is that many have learned the art of giving charity. Moved by a sense of pity and compassion, people give tzedakah to those who are physically broken and economically shattered. Few, however, possess the foresight and wisdom to appreciate the importance of extending a helping hand befme the catastrophe has crushed their neighbor or friend.
The American Community is currently conducting two major drives in behalf of the State of israel--the U.J.A. campaign and the Bond Drive. Abba Eban once disdnguished the two drives by defining the U.J.A. gifts as free dollars and the Bond Drive as investment dollars. In Hebrew the distinction is even clearer than that. U.J.A. is tzedakah; the Bond Drive is gemilat chassadim. Those who give to the U.J.A. should do all they can to also invest in Israel. In due time that gemilat chessed will bring about the elimination of the need to appeal for free dollars for the Jewish State.
To you, my young friend, I would like to leave the following message. The difference between the man who leads a fine and consistently noble Jewish life and the one who comes to us in the twilight of his life, is the difference between gemilat chessed and tzedakah. The first one invests in the Jewish way of life. He has faith in it; and after a lifetime of devotion and service he has the pleasure of enjoying dividends of satisfaction and nachas. But the fellow who comes to us late in life is giving tzedakah. He arrives too late to derive any true benefit from his new dedication. Of course, it is better late than never. But gedolah gemilat chassadim yoter min ha-tzedakah. We would rather have him come early in life--from the day of his early childhood, certainly not later than from the time of his religious maturity. That is your opportunity on this day of your Bar Mitzvah.