Sunday, September 09, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Sun. Sept. 9th)


Corporeally involves helping all people as much as possible and easing their burdens. This is what our sages were talking about when they referred to "bearing a friend's yoke with him" (Pirke Avot 6:6). And should any physical harm threaten to come to a person when you are able to defer or prevent it, you should try as much as you can to do so.

Monetarily involves helping a friend as much as you possibly can to avoid any loss. And all the more so does it mean preventing any potential or actual monetary loss that might come to individuals or groups of people through your own doing. In fact, when any loss just might come about, you should defer. As our sages said, "Your friend's money should be as dear to you as your own" (Pirke Avot 2:12).

Psychologically involves providing your friend with all the contentment you can, whether in terms of respect for him or any other way. It is a mitzvah in the realm of piety to do all you know will bring satisfaction to your friend. It goes without saying that you should not cause him any problems. This all falls under the category of acts of benevolence which our sages praised so much and saw as such an obligation, and it includes striving for peace, which is the most essential factor for the betterment of human relations.

I will now bring you proof for all of this from the words of our sages, even though it is all obvious and requires no convincing evidence. In the chapter of the Talmud entitled "The Residents of the City" our sages said, "Rabbi Zakai's students asked him to what he attributed his long life. He told them that he had never urinated within seven feet of anyone praying, he had never given a friend a nick-name, and he had never missed making kiddush on Shabbat. He said that he had had an old mother who had once sold the hat from her head so that he might have the means for kiddush" (Megillah 27b). Here you have an instance of piety in terms of being as fastidious in the mitzvot as possible. While he could have been excused from making kiddush over wine because he did not have any, and it was necessary for his mother to sell her hat so that he might have the money for the wine, this was all done in accordance with the practice of the pious. And, as to his respect for others, he would not give a friend a nick-name (not even one that is not at all insulting; cf. Tosphot). As another example of such piety we find that Rav Hunah would be forced to tie a rubber strap around his waist because he had sold his belt to buy wine for kiddush.

We find further there that Rabbi Elazar Ben Shmuah's students asked him how he had lived such a long life. He replied, "I never made a shortcut through a synagogue in my entire life, and I never stepped over the heads of the holy nation". This is piety made manifest in respect for the synagogue, and in respect for other people, in that he did not step over the area people sit in so he would not appear to be belittling them. We also find that the students of Rabbi Freedah asked him the same question, and he responded that, "No man ever came into the study-hall earlier than I did, I never blessed in the presence of a Kohen, and I never ate from an animal that had not yet had its gift-offering portion removed from it." Rabbi Nechuniah was asked that question by his students and responded, "I have never been glorified by the shame of my friend, and I never went to bed cursing a friend" (Megillah 28a). It is pointed out there that Rav Hunah was once carrying an axe on his shoulders for them when Rav Channah Bar Chanilai came along and took it from him to ease his burden. Rav Hunah said to him, "If you're in the habit of carrying it that way, carry it. But if you are not, I don't want to be glorified by your disgrace." We see from this that even though the intonation of the phrase "being glorified by the shame of your friend" is consciously setting out to disgrace your friend so that you yourself will be glorified, nonetheless the pious feel that it is not right for them to get honor if the other person is somehow disgraced, even if that other person does not object. Rabbi Zairah said in the same vein, "I have never in my life been tyrannical in my home; I never stepped in front of someone greater than me; I never thought of Torah in unclean alley-ways; I never walked seven feet without Torah and t'phillin; I neither napped nor fell asleep for the night in the study-hall; I never rejoiced in my fellow's bad fortune; and I never called a friend by his surname" (Ibid.). Here you have an example of pious ways in all of the aforementioned categories.

We find further that Rabbi Yehudah said, "Whoever wants to be pious should live according to what it says in Tractate Brachot" (Baba Kamma 30a), because it addresses matters that are between a person and G-d; "...whoever wants to be pious should live according to the what it says in the Order of Damages," which addresses all interpersonal matters; and, "... whoever wants to be pious should live according to what it says in Pirke Avot", for there are discussed matters from both categories.

One of the main elements of piety is benevolence. The very word piety (chassidut) is based upon kindness (chessed). Our sages said, "The world stands upon three things..." (Pirke Avot 1:2), one of which is benevolence. They also included it among those things that a person enjoys the fruits of in this world, while enjoying their principle in the World to Come (Peah 1:1). Rabbi Simlai explained that, "The Torah begins and ends with benevolence" (Sotah 14a). Rava added that, "Whoever has these three traits is sure to be a descendant of Abraham: compassion, shyness, and benevolence" (Yevamot 79a). Rabbi Elazar said that "benevolence is greater than charity. As it is written, 'Plant for yourselves in charity, and reap in benevolence' (Hosea 10:12)" (Succah 49b). And it is also said, (Ibid.) "Benevolence is greater than charity in three ways: while you may give charity with your money, you are benevolent with your whole body; you may give charity to the poor, but you can be benevolent to the poor or the rich; you may give charity to the living, but you can be benevolent to the living or the dead." Our sages said, "It is written, 'He will offer you compassion and be compassionate to you' (Deuteronomy 13:18) -- that means to say that whoever is compassionate to his fellows enjoys compassion from Heaven" (Shabbat 151b). This is clear, because it is known that G-d recompenses measure for measure (Sanhedrin 90a).

One who is compassionate and gracious to others will enjoy G-d's compassion. G-d will absolve his transgressions in kindness. This absolution will be the judgment toward him in recompense for how he has acted, which is what our sages were referring to when they said, "Whose transgression does G-d overlook? One who overlooks a transgression done against him" (Rosh HaShannah 17a). Divine retribution will come to one who does not want to transcend his own personal character traits, or who does not want to be benevolent. He will be judged according to the letter of the law because he acted that way. And who is it that can withstand G-d's judgment of him according to the strict letter of the law? King David would pray, "Do not bring your servant to judgment. No living thing can prove righteous before You" (Psalms 143:2). But one who acts kindly is reacted to kindly. And the more you act thusly, the more you receive. King David would laud his own share of this trait, and would even try to be kind to his enemies. He referred to this when he said, "In their illness I donned sackcloth and deprived my spirit with fasting..." (Psalms 35:13) and "if I have recompensed those who did me wrong..." (Psalms 7:5). The point of the matter is that you should not cause suffering to any being -- human or animal-- and you should be compassionate and kind to all. Thus it says, "The righteous person knows the soul of his animals" (Proverbs 12:10). In fact, there are some of the opinion that compassion for animals is Biblical in origin (Shabbat 128b) if not, at the least, Rabbinic.

In summary, compassion and the willingness to do good are traits imbedded in the heart of the pious. They are constantly driven to satisfying people's needs and to not cause any sorrow.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman