One of the greatest blessings of the modern day Jewish community structure is the emergence of organizational Judaism. In an unprecedented way the Jewish community has produced some of the most outstanding communal structures that accomplish goals that were unfathomable in the past. An abundance of community organizers can be found feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, promoting the study of Torah, and many other important causes, all doing an excellent job addressing fundamental communal needs.
This, however, comes at a great cost. Not the expenditure of financial resources which, although not being vast, are directed at noble and worthy causes; but rather a personal and spiritual expense. Having others take the responsiblity for every possible aspect of charity, kindness, hospitality, volunteerism, and political activism can come at a painful cost to our own opportunities to engage in these essentials of Jewish observance.
The Rambam (in his commentary to Pirkei Avot 3:15) addresses the following moral dilemma. If a person has a sum of money designated for charity and has the option of giving a large amount to one poor person or many small, less significant, contributions to many people in need, how should one distribute his or her money? Should the money be given in a way that will be meaningful for one person and help them towards significant relief or should a small sum be given to many people helping many people yet in a far less significant way?
The Rambam suggests that one should give many small amounts rather than give one person the large amount. The Rambam explains that since the Torah’s ultimate goal is not just to create a better society but rather a better individual, and since the mitzvoth of the Torah seek to ultimately make us into better people (Vayikra Rabba 12, see Maharal Tiferet Yisrael chapter), we must maximize the effect of this opportunity. The Torah wants us to strive to be similar to G-d, imitatio dei.Therefore we must make the most of the mitzvoth to follow in that path.
This being the case, since when giving charity we are not only having an impact on the life of the recipient but are also having a more profound and transformative impact on ourselves, it is important take full advantage of this aspect of giving. We must give many times and to many people even if it is just a small amount, so that we become as giving and as kind hearted as possible1. Needless to say that if someone is able to give a large amount to many people that would be even more preferable.
Following this ruling of the Rambam, it is important to note that as we delegate effective kindness to communal mediums we are very much compromising an equally important aspect of kinds — our own self-improvement.
Aspects of personal activism and kindness are greatly diminished with the emergence of the broad and vast systems of communal welfare systems we are so familiar with. While we support so many institutions that address needs that do need to be taken care of we must ask ourselves, what expense is this incurring? When was the last time we fed someone who is really needy and hungry in our own kitchens? When is the last time we opened own homes not just to a friend who came to visit us but also to someone who would not have had a place to sleep otherwise? When is the last time we helped someone in dire financial condition ourselves and not through a communal charity? All these are questions that are just as essential to our Judaism as other aspects of observance which we assume to be so necessary (see Bereishit 18:19, Yishayahu 58:7, Hoshea 5:6, Mishlay 3:3 and many more). We must be able to answer them with pride, affirmation, and in a way that would not force us to look away as our ancestors remind us of how they practiced kindness in a very personal way.
There is no question that the level of structure and organization in the Jewish community has achieved in its quest to address issues of chessed, talmud Torahand areyvut are a historic achievement in which we can take great pride. At the same time we must make sure that these very same acts of kindness do not lead us away and astray of personal kindness, goodness, and spiritual growth.
1 It is important to note that this position of the Rambam is not unanimous. The Yaavetz and Maharal both argue that it is better to give one person a large amount. This, however, is not a contradiction to the above application because although the Yaavtz argues with Rambam’s final ruling he does not argue with the rationale. It is giving the large amount that is preferred, argues Yaavetz, not only because it will be of more substantial help to the poor person but because it will allow the giver to forece himself to give a large amount at once and to thereby become a greater giver. The Chafetz Chaim (Ahavath Chessed Vol II chapter 13) rules like the Rambam that it is better to give to the many, and Achronim cite the Magen Avraham (OC 561:16) as being of the same position. Cf Mikhat Yitzkhak Vol VI siman 102.
Published in the YU Lamdan April 8, 2014