Ethics of the Fathers – Charity & Kindness


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student



“On three things the world stands…”


We last explained that the phrase “on three things the world stands,” means that these factors are essential to maintaining the correct social atmosphere. The next step is to understand these factors and how they work together in this framework.

      When we begin to analyze these elements on a social level, we must keep in mind that society is composed of individuals: these elements must first be understood on an individual level. This contrasts to certain theories of the social sciences that maintain there is a ‘herd instinct’, which means that individuals in a group are a new phenomenon behaving with a new quality of instinct in their makeup. People act differently in crowds, not because of something new that suddenly appears in them, but rather because a certain part of the individual’s makeup, which was always there, grows exaggerated. This part is not new - it is exists in the individual level as well.

      Our Mishna is teaching us that these three factors combine to maintain a productive social environment. This means that without these three elements, man would be destructive and bring about the downfall of society. How do these factors remove man from acting destructively?

      The first factor in the Mishna is Torah. The Rambam on the Mishna says this refers to “chachma”, wisdom. How does this play a role in preventing man from becoming destructive? Through intellectual involvement, man’s energies, including the aggressive, are channeled and given an outlet so that no harm will result. The area of knowledge is harmless in that one individual’s gain, says nothing about nor takes away from another individual’s knowledge.

      The next factor we will take up is that of “Gemilut Chassadim”, acts of kindness. Rashi makes a few, interesting remarks on this element. He says that it refers specifically to one who lends money to a poor person because this is greater than Tzedaka, charity. Furthermore, he continues, acts of kindness are greater than charity because they can be done whether one is poor or wealthy and this is what our Sages say “greater are acts of kindness than charity”. Rashi then quotes the verse “The Kindness of God is forever on those that fear Him” to teach that the world stands on kindness.

      This commentary of Rashi is quite perplexing. Let us focus on one basic, logical problem: if giving charity is itself an act of kindness than how can an act of kindness be better than charity? Charity is the act itself!

      The Rambam, at the end of the Moreh Nevuchim explains that whereas the term Chesed, kindness, refers to an excess of some moral quality, the term Tzedaka, charity, refers to giving each being its due and showing kindness to the degree that each individual deserves. Kindness, then, expresses itself differently from charity - acts of kindness are expressed wherever one overextends himself in a situation, helping someone more than they deserve. In contrast, charity stems from the existence of an intolerable situation - so, for example, in the case of giving money to a poor person, the giving expresses the perception of the right of the poor person to exist, so you help him sustain himself.

      Let us clarify this distinction by emphasizing the difference in how the performer of the act relates to the poor person - whereas one who gives charity relates to the poor person purely on an objective level based on the intolerability of the situation, one who does kindness overextends himself so that he identifies with and relates to the person on a more personal level. This is what Rashi means that giving a loan to a poor person is greater than charity, for in a loan there is an ongoing relationship between the giver and the poor individual, whereas giving money represents how the giver cannot tolerate the situation.

      Now we are in a position to understand what our Mishna means that acts of kindness are one of the elements that the world stands on. Since in these activities there are relationships created between people, and society is founded upon such relationships, they are integral to maintaining a proper social environment.