God’s Lessons in Kindness
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
YOSE BEN YOCHANAN, MAN OF JERUSALEM, SAYS, “MAY YOUR HOME BE OPEN WIDE” (Avos 1:5)
Rashi comments: “Open on four sides to invite [to enter] travelers.”
Rashi quotes the Gemara, “And he [Yoav] established his house in the desert.” But was he truly in the desert? (Yoav was King David’s captain; he was not poor that he should live this way.) The Gemara clarifies, “His house was ‘like’ a desert,” open on all four sides. Avraham too kept his tent open on all four sides. True charity is where the owner or donor (ba’al) is removed; one gives without seeking the appreciation of the recipient. He forgoes that ego satisfaction, giving purely to address the poor man’s needs. A one-door home forces the poor man to confront the owner, whereby, the owner enjoys feelings of benevolence, and the poor man is humbled. In contrast, in a house opened in all four directions the owner properly forfeits ego satisfaction, also allowing the poor man to enter without confrontation, where the poor man retains a higher level of dignity. (Rabbi Israel Chait, “Pirkei Avos Chap. 1”)
Above, Rabbi Chait explained that man is to express sensitivity towards others, dignifying them. However, people wrongly characterize and render total summations of others based on an isolated matter. This is man’s ego at its relentless work. Man feels that as John owes him, he may rightly express dominance over John in all areas, walking into his home to collect collateral or a debt. Torah disagrees:
When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you. (Deut. 24:10,11)
Torah corrects man’s egotism. Man tends to satisfy ego in many permutations. Here, one reduces the debtor as undeserving of equality. One does not barge into his neighbor’s home. Rather, he knocks and awaits an invitation inside. But here, man views the debtor as undeserving. Thus, Torah warn us not to express this false superiority. There is no change in human status due to a loan. We also learn that one must treat his servant better than himself. The monetary relationship is confined to monetary matters alone and does not spill over into other areas, or reduce the slave in terms of his dignity.
This law also protects the debtor’s “space.” Humility is typically felt when borrowing from others. The borrower senses an inadequacy as he could not self-provide, and needed to rely on another. He needs space away from the loaner to regain his dignity. This law preserves his safe haven. Dignity is so prized, that charity is not fulfilled with money alone, but we are commanded to commiserate with the poor person. We don’t only negate the flexing of our egos, but we positively elevate the poor person by demonstrating they are worth our time.
Focussing on God as our superior reminds us that others are equal creations. Torah corrects our natural drives; it is necessary. God created the human design but also advised us on proper and improper behavior. As one cannot properly use a complex machine with any success unless he studies it and gains knowledge of its functioning from its maker, we are no different, and will fail if we treat others as our emotions and whims desire.
If he is a needy man, you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; you must return the pledge to him at sundown, that he may sleep in his cloth and bless you; and it will be to your merit before the Lord your God. (Deut. 24:12,13)
Torah then warns of another sensitivity. Man feels rightful to retain collateral. After all, that’s what collateral is: a possession that leverages payment. But God teaches that other considerations outweigh one’s security. One might feel returning the collateral risks repayment. But that’s only a risk, whereas the poor man’s shivering at night is a definite. There is also a passive aggression expressed by one not returning the night garment. We must counter this aggression as it stems from viewing a debtor negatively, when he has done nothing wrong. We entered into a loan agreement, and the payment date has not yet arrived. The debtor is innocent and must not be viewed negatively, and certainly must not bear the brunt of our aggressive superiority complex. His debt does not earn him a lesser status.
You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt. (Deut. 24:14,15)
Man expresses another insensitivity or aggression by delaying pay to his worker. One feels superior to others who labor for him. Compliance to the worker is a type of subservience, which is distasteful to one viewing himself as superior, regardless of the obligation. Again, Torah outlines where ego expresses itself and where man can perfect himself.