The Mitzvah to Be Human

The Journey to Unity - 62b

The Mitzvah to be Human:

"To deserve the title of 'human being,' a person should consider himself a pipeline to help others." (Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz)

Dear Friends,

We began our discussion on tzedakah with the reminder that the Creator is the true Owner of the resources in our possession, and that we are only the custodians. We then discussed the following teaching of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer: The Creator has given those who lack the basic necessities of life a claim to part of our resources; thus, those who withhold tzedekah from such needy individuals are guilty of stealing from them! And since the prohibition against stealing is one of the seven basic precepts of the ancient universal moral code, all human beings are required to give tzedakah.

There is another reason why all human beings should give tzedakah. Rabbi Nissim Gaon, a noted sage of the 11th century, writes in his introduction to the Talmud that human beings in every generation have an obligation to perform any mitzvah of the Torah which is suggested by "reason and the understanding of the heart." Tzedakah can be viewed as a mitzvah which is suggested by "the understanding of the heart," and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century sage, elaborates on this idea:

"Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for the human being, whose function it is to show respect and love for God's universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic that if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything else to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence." (Horeb, chapter 17).

The human heart was created with the capacity to be compassionate; therefore, when the Torah mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah in the Book of Deuteronomy (15:7), the verse states: "You shall not harden your heart!" We are not to allow selfish thoughts or desires to suppress our innate capacity for compassion.

The human being has this innate capacity for compassion, as the human being was created in the image of the Compassionate One. Just as the Compassionate One nurtures all creatures, so too the human being has the capacity to nurture others. As Rabbi Hirsch taught, our compassion is to awaken within us the recognition that all beings have a claim to our "love and beneficence." In this spirit, the Chofetz Chaim, a sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writes:

"Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that 'God created the human being in His image.' The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with lovingkindness with others, as Scripture states: 'Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works' (Psalm 145:9), and 'He gives food to all flesh, for His loving-kindness endures forever' (Psalm 136:25). The existence of the entire world then depends on this virtue...Hence whoever follows in this path will bear the Divine image on his person; while whoever refrains from exercising this virtue and questions himself, 'why should I do good to others?' removes himself completely from Hashem, the Blessed One."

("Loving Kindness" by the Chafetz Chaim, chapter 2)

Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz, a sage of the early 20th century, applies this teaching to Sodom:

"To deserve the title of 'human being,' a person should consider himself a pipeline to help others...The city of Sodom was destroyed because the inhabitants did not do acts of lovingkindness for others. They were guilty of other major crimes, as well, but had they been kind to one another, they would have nevertheless deserved the title 'adam' - human being. Their complete lack of tzedakah and kindness to others brought in its wake their complete destruction." (Cited in "Consulting the Wise" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)

As human beings created in the Divine image, we have the potential to emulate the Divine compassion and love; moreover, there is a mitzvah in the Torah which calls upon us to develop this potential. It is the mitzvah "to walk in His ways" (Deuteronomy 29:9). Maimonides, in his explanation of this mitzvah, cites the following teaching of our sages:

"Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Compassionate, so should you be compassionate; just as He is called Gracious, so should you be gracious; just as He is called Righteous, so should you be righteous; just as He is called 'Chasid' - the One Who does Lovingkindness - so should you be a chasid." (Book of Mitzvos, #8)

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a noted 16th century kabbalist, writes that we fulfill the mitzvah to emulate the Divine attribute of lovingkindness by visiting the sick, giving tzedekah to the poor, offering hospitality to strangers, attending to the dead, attending to the needs of a bride and groom, making peace between people who quarreled, and doing other acts of lovingkindness (The Palm Tree of Devorah, chap. 5). An act of tzedakah is therefore both an act of lovingkindness and an act of justice. It is an act of lovingkindness to which the needy are "entitled"; thus, it is also an act of justice.

The above teachings indicate that all human beings should develop their unique potential to emulate the Divine compassion and lovingkindness, and a good way to begin is by giving tzedakah.


Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. The Sodomites strived to destroy their potential to emulate the Divine compassion and lovingkindness. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) describes how they made it a crime for any citizen to help the needy, and someone who was "guilty" of such a crime would be put to death in a cruel way.

2. It is written, "The one who robs a poor person insults his Maker, but the one who is gracious to the destitute honors Him" (Proverbs 4:31). The midrashic work, Pirkei D' Rabbi Eliezer,describes the cruelty of Sodom to the poor, and it cites the following teaching of Rabbi Nathaniel: Not only did the people of Sodom fail to honor their Owner through distributing food to the wayfarer and the stranger; they even made a fence around their fruit trees, in a way that no one could take the fruits - not even the birds!

3. As mentioned above, there is a teaching that all human beings should fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah which can be understood through human reason. The mitzvos regarding human relationships, including the mitzvah of tzedakah, are in this category. In this spirit, Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 13th century, explains that the reason Sodom was held accountable for their social selfishness is because tzedakah is a mitzvah which human reason can understand (commentary on Genesis 18:20). In fact, Rabbi Hirsch writes that in the messianic age, all the peoples will accept upon themselves all the mitzvos of the Torah which govern human relationships (commentary on Isaiah 2:3).

4. Within our Sacred Scriptures, we find the Book of Job. Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher cites a tradition that Job was a righteous Gentile who descended from Avraham. (Only the descendants of Avraham's grandson, Jacob - also known as Israel - became the People of Israel.) Job was stricken with suffering, and his struggle to understand the meaning of his suffering is the theme of the book which was named after him. Job said about himself, "Never did I withold the needs of the destitute" (Job 31:16). He also said: "The stranger did not lodge in the street; I opened my doors to the wayfarer" (Job 31:32). Rabbenu Bachya offers the following commentary on Job's statement regarding his hospitality:

"Job lauds himself that his home was open to all wayfarers, strangers, and sojourners, and that no one, regardless of his nationality, ever lodged in the street...He was an extremely pious and thoroughly righteous person. He served God through the ethical mitzvos which can be understood by human reason, and he was kind to all people as well as his own people. This should be an inspiration for the human being to broaden the extent of his compassion." (Kad HeKemach, The Stranger - There is an English translation of this work by Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel titled, "Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts" published by Shilo Publishing House.)

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: