Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When to Help Is to Hurt

At the Shabbat table, when the host slices the challah, he is not to distribute the pieces to the guests one at a time, placing a piece in the hand of each guest. Rather he is to place the sliced challah on a common plate and let each guest take a piece for him/herself.
According to the Shulchan Aruch only a mourner may be given a slice in his/her hand directly(perhaps this is only true during the week when the laws of aveilut prevail).

The reason the host may not put bread in the hands of his guests is because it is demeaning to them. It is one thing to offer another of your hospitality. It is another to make him/her feel dependent. When the bread is offered and the guest takes, s/he is asserting his/her independence. S/he is choosing to take. When bread is put in the hands of the guest s/he is made to feel infantilized, fed by another. Even when giving one may not do so in such a manner as to lord over the recipient. Only for the the aveil, who, in his/her time of loss, is dependent on the care of the community, are we permitted and indeed encouraged to feed even by hand.

The sensitivity of halacha to the dynamics of human relationships is extraordinary. The host may intend only to benefit his/her guest. The guest may only feel gratitude for the food s/he is served. Yet if the way of giving creates an imbalance that makes the one superior and the other dependent, it is unacceptable.

Perhaps this helps explain a troubling pasuk in this week's parsha of Teruma. In charging Moshe with the work of collecting gifts for the construction of the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the wilderness, the Torah says, "From every man who makes a voluntary offering you shall take my teruma."
The verse seems conflicted. If the person makes a "voluntary offering" then why will Moshe "take" it. If its voluntary it will be "given" not "taken". We would expect the pasuk to read "From every man who makes a voluntary offering you shall receive...." rather that take.

In accord with the halacha we just discussed above we may understand here the Torah's intent.
Yes, each person may want to give to build the Mishkan. He may feel a generosity of spirit. And his gift is indeed desired and needed. Yet it is unbecoming for him to give. To give, whether to G-d or another, directly is to set-up the donor in a position of superiority relative to the recipient. It creates a unacceptable imbalance and the potential for the donor to believe himself G-d-like in sustaining those dependent on him.

That is entirely unacceptable. The most the benefactor to the Mishkan was permitted was to open his heart and make his gift available. Then it was for Moshe to take the gift, even as we take the challah from the plate of our host. We do not give to another in such a way as to make the other feel small. If its at all possible, we give in such a way so as to allow him/her to retain his/her dignity. Even in helping there are ways that sustain and ways that diminish.

A wise friend, who I often call my Resh Lakish, shared with me an interesting application of this concept. Like many of us , on the streets of Yerushalayim, the friend often gets asked for donations by people giving away small booklets or other items. Typically the friend will give a donation and decline to take the item distributed. Yet, on reflection, the friend remarked, it would be better to take the booklet offered. Not because the friend wanted it. But rather because it let the other retain his/her dignity. In accepting the booklet the tzedaka becomes more like a sale, as it were, even if only in form, and the recipient feels less compromised.

To learn how to give is an art, not only with the poor who we don't know, but even with our friends in their time of need. We need to think how we can help without making the other feel diminished or beholden to us. We need to think how we might give without engendering the sense of helplessness that makes a person feel small. The Rambam already outlined his 7 levels of giving Tzedakah, with sensitivity to the needy. We need to apply the same ideas to other spheres of our lives where help is needed but should be given so as to minimize the hurt of the one receiving in the process.

Shabbat Shalom

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