Tales of Tzedakah - 1

The Journey to Unity - 75

Tzedakah: The Divine Mandate to Share Our Resources With Those In Need

Tales of Tzedakah - 1

"Tzadikim" are righteous people who are totally dedicated to the Torah's principle of tzedek - the Divine plan which entitles all creatures to receive what they need in order to fulfill their purpose within creation. Tzadikim serve as models for us, and it is customary to tell stories about their great accomplishments, so that we can learn from their ways. It is possible, however, that when we hear stories which describe their high spiritual level, we may subconsciously feel intimidated, since we sense that we are not yet on their level. It is therefore helpful to remember that there are some stories of tzadikim which can be compared to the stars. We cannot yet reach the stars, but as we travel on earth, we can set our course by them. So too, we may not yet be able to reach the level of tzedakah described in some of these stories, but the values they express can help us to set our life's course. In this spirit, we will send out "Tales of Tzedakah" during the Chanukah Festival, when we kindle the lights of the Menorah (candelabrum).

Someone may ask, "What does tzedakah have to with this festival of light?" To begin to answer this question, we need to remember that the Menorah is placed in a window or before the door of the home, so that its light will be seen by others. This action expresses the idea that we are to bring light to the world through the power of our own spiritual example. According to the following teaching from Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Numbers, B'ha'aloscha 8), the light of our people is the light of tzedekah:

"In the future, the nations will be drawn to your light, as it says, 'And nations will walk by your light' (Isaiah 60:3). And what is the light that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will shine upon Israel? It is the light of tzedakah, as it says, 'But to you who are in awe of My Name, the sun of tzedakah will shine' (Malachi 3:20)."

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk: The Brother of the Poor

It is written, "Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor into your home" (Isaiah 58:7). In this spirit, the Mishna teaches:

"Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem says, 'Let your house be open wide for relief, and let the poor be members of your household.' " (Mishna Pirkei Avos 1:5)

"Let the poor be members of your household" - Rebbenu Yonah, a leading 13th century sage, offers the following commentary: One should make poor guests feel totally at home by showing them a happy face and by giving them free reign of his home, just as one does with the members of one's family. In this way they will not feel embarrassment through receiving hospitality.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk was a leading sage of the early 20th century, who brought the teaching of the above Mishnah to great heights. He lived in an age when the vast majority of Jews in Eastern Europe were poor, and many were forced to wander in search of food and sustenance. In order to understand the loving way in which he opened his home to all those in need, we need to remember that the wandering Jewish poor were not prone to violence; thus, it was quite common among Jews to take in strangers and give them a hot meal and a place to sleep without the hosts worrying that their lives would be in danger. The hospitality of Rav Chaim, who was known as the "Brisker Rav," did not have the usual limits that many hosts have. He did not view his house as "private property"; therefore, any beggar could step over Reb Chaim's threshold and immediately make himself at home without receiving an invitation or permission. A needy person would come in and head straight for the kitchen where he lit a fire, boiled a kettle of hot water for a soothing cup of tea, and rummaged through the cupboards to find something to eat. Finding something good to eat, he would take out a pot, cook the food to his liking, set the table, and sit down to his meal. Feeling drowsy after eating, he would go down the hallway and look through the bedrooms in search of an empty bed, and then go to sleep.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik's son, Rav Yitzchak Zev, related that most of the period growing up in his parents' home, he slept on a bench in some corner of the house because his bed was usually taken by a poor stranger. Once, he came home exhausted from a hard day of learning and fell into his 'own' bed. A short while later, a stranger aroused him from his slumber, saying, "This bed is mine. I already staked a claim on it earlier in the day!" The same thing often happened to Rav Chaim himself when families blessed with a good number of children would stay in his house for months. The Rav would come home and find his own bed occupied by a stranger; he himself then slept on a hard wooden bench.

It is therefore not surprising that these downtrodden souls felt like members of Rav Chaim's family. Rav Chaim treated them with such genuine, brotherly love that they talked to him like a brother. Instead of referring to him as "the Rav," they affectionately called him "Chaim'ke."

He was not a wealthy man, but he and his wife shared with the needy whatever they had. His behavior was consistent with the teaching of the Chofetz Chaim, another leading sage of that generation, who said that when the Mishna tells us to "let the poor be members of your household," it is telling us not to think that we are excused from this mitzvah if we don't have fancy food and accomodations to offer. What is most important is to allow our needy guests to feel as members of the family, even if all we have to offer is simple fare.

Happy Chanukah!

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