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A Poor Man's Gift

A Poor Man's Gift

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After three millennia, the mitzvah of charity, given by G‑d to our ancestors in nomad's-land, has slowly begun to sink in.

The world we live in today is thankfully beginning to glorify acts of philanthropy.

And even if much of the giving is image based – today's savvy publicist knows that acts of charity are necessary enhancements for their clients' popularity – that itself speaks volumes about the progression of modern civilization's moral sense and the expectations it sets for those it idolizes.

What is often overlooked, however,Charity not only means feeding empty stomachs, but also includes the nourishing of needy hearts... is the fact that charity not only means feeding empty stomachs, but also includes the nourishing of needy hearts, ignorant minds, misguided spirits, and stagnant souls.

While a now-famous Jewish teaching states, "Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,"1 according to one Talmudic master, "He who teaches Torah to his neighbor's son is regarded by Scripture as though he created him."2

Clearly, Jewish wisdom sees the saving of physical life and the giving of spiritual life as two sides of the same coin of charity. To some we give dollars, to others we give sense.

A Charity Lesson

Several times a year, usually during the Rosh Hashanah and Passover seasons, the Rebbe would pen a public letter, addressed to "the sons and daughters of Israel, everywhere," which was printed and distributed in Jewish communities across the globe, translated, published in newspapers, and the like. The following is a freely translated excerpt from the very first "public letter" written by the Rebbe, dated Elul 18, 5710 (August 31, 1950), several months after the passing of his father-in-law, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.3

Man, like all creatures . . . possesses both a body and a soul. And just as there are those who are poor in body and bodily needs, so, too, are there paupers in spirit and spiritual needs. Thus, the mitzvah of charity includes both physical charity and spiritual charity. In the words of our sages: "[It is written:] 'If you see a naked person, you should cover him.'4 What is the meaning of this? If you see a person who is naked of the words of Torah, take him into your home, teach him to read the Shema and pray, teach him... and enjoin him regarding the mitzvot...."5

And here comes the bombshell, a counterintuitive teaching, I might add:

"There is no man or woman in Israel who cannot, in some way, influence his or her fellow Jews" -- The RebbeRegarding material charity, the law is that the material pauper is also obligated [to give], for even the most impoverished person can find a way to help his fellow pauper.6 The same applies to spiritual charity. There is no man or woman in Israel who cannot, in some way, influence his or her fellow Jews and bring them closer to the fear of Heaven, the Torah and the mitzvot.

On this note, the Rebbe would often quote the lovely Chasidic saying: "If only you know aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet)—teach aleph!"

But how can that be? we immediately counter.

How can I, a struggling student with little background, a beginner at the most, have the chutzpah to teach others what I know so little about? we are tempted to ask.

A good question, indeed. And in classic Jewish fashion, it can be answered with an even better question, asked by the Rebbe in the following encounter:

Herb Brin, a noted author and the editor of four newspapers, met with the Rebbe after becoming editor of the L.A.-based Jewish newspaper Heritage. The private audience lasted six hours. At some point, the following exchange took place:

"Rebbe, I recently became editor of a Jewish publication. The problem is, I know very little about my people and their heritage. Do I have the right to make sensitive editorial judgments as I do not understand Hebrew, my Jewish education was truncated, and I only know fragments of Yiddish?"

Looking him in the eye, the Rebbe said, "Do you have the right to withhold that which you do know?"

Lovely, but what about this question:How can I promote the practice of a lifestyle that I myself continue to struggle with? Say that as a student, I have the right, even the obligation, to teach, to inform, to educate, to share information with those uninformed; but how dare I encourage others when it comes to Jewish observance? How can I promote the practice of a lifestyle that I myself continue to struggle with?

Again, a good question; answerable by a better one.

A college student once approached the Rebbe in the middle of a chassidic gathering to greet him with a l'chaim. The Rebbe turned and asked him if he was involved with encouraging and helping his fellowstudents to put on tefillin every day."But Rebbe," admitted the young man, "I myself don't put on tefillin every day!"

"Why is that their fault…?" replied the Rebbe, with a smile.

In sum, Judaism teaches that you don't have to be rich to give to the poor, you don't have to be a scholar in order to teach the ignorant, and you don't have to be perfect in order to help others perfect themselves.

Footnotes
1.

Sanhedrin 37a.

2.

Ibid. 99b.

3.

Printed in Igrot Kodesh vol. 3, pg. 463-4.

5.

Tanna D'vei Eliyahu Rabbah, chapter 27.

6.

Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah 248:1.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—Chabad.org, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Daniel Eichenberg August 30, 2016

Shalom Rav Kalmenson,

Thank you for this article and all of them that you have written. They are
helpful, hopeful and refreshing. May Hashem bless you that you may continue to share and give to all of us! Reply

Lasarusa Yehuda Sovea Ben-Zion Suva, Fiji Islands August 17, 2012

A Poor Man's Gift This is indeed true wisdom. This has helped me to know my worthiness. Reply

YOUSEF sakaka, Saudi Arabia August 16, 2012

A Poor Man's Gift This is very useful lesson indeed, before I thought I'd have to be rich in order to give to the needy but right now I can share whatever is in my possession with the needy. Reply

Shabnam Roshan Ara Noida, UP/INDIA August 5, 2010

A poor man's gift. Good article. I learned today what in actual sense a real gift means.
Best wishes, Reply

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