Putting out the Fire
In a small village somewhere in the Eastern European nether-land, before the mass media and telecommunications were facts of life, a simple Jew came crying to his Rebbe. With tears streaming down his face, he beseeched his Rebbe to pray for his welfare.
"But Yankel, why? You are one of the outstanding citizens of our village!" answered the puzzled Rebbe.
"Please, Rebbe, you must pray for my soul. I know that I am doomed to eternal hell!" he sobbed out his bitter words, as his head fell into his hands, covering his face.
"But Yankel," the Rebbe protested, "I only wish that there were more kind hearted and helping villagers like you! Why do you think that you are doomed to hell?"
"Please, Rebbe, you must pray for my soul! I can't continue any more!"
"Now, Yankel, you know that in our village you are considered a hero. I well remember the fire that broke out in the house of your neighbor. We all know the bravery that you exhibited in rushing into the burning building to save the mother and six of her children while they were sleeping. Very few men could have even had the courage to risk their lives, even once, to rush into a burning building to save the lives of sleeping children and their mother. Not once you ran in, but several times. In and out, bringing out those sleeping and trapped children. You are a true hero.
"I understand that there were two children that you were unable to rescue, but Yankel, don't feel bad about that. Your actions in rescuing the mother and the rest of the family were truly heroic. The whole town knows that. You must get over your feelings of grief that two children died in the fire. What more could you have done? It was just not in your hands to save them."
Yankel weeped more and in an anguished voice, cried out bitterly, "but rabbi, you don't realize, I was the one that started the fire!"
* * * * *
It happens in life that the person who causes harm, is the one who is praised as the hero, because he rescued the person whom he caused to fall. A case in point is the death of a woman in a community in Israel who died suddenly from unknown causes. She was very well liked, her husband worked, and he alone tried to support their very large family of thirteen children. Yet on his meager salary they fell deeper and deeper into debt. The constant need to repay debts took a toll on the health of the father, yet it was the mother who one day collapsed from the strain and burden of constant debt.
The leaders of the community, after the woman's death, realized that a large part of the problem had been their unbearable debt. They raised monies to help the family pay off all of their debts, and insure a constant monthly income to insure that the family would never be debt bound again and that the children would all be able to be married off with out regard to financial burdens.
Obviously the action of the community was splendid. Most members of the communities gave standing orders with their bank to transfer monthly funds into a central bank account, and from there, funds would be transferred monthly into the families account. They gave with such open hearts that the family will never have to worry again.
Not wanting to belittle the help of the community, but with an eye to the future, would it not have been better had the community taken upon itself the welfare of the family before the husband had a minor heart attack and the mother dying from a sudden stoke? Of course, it would have been better, but since we generally think of charity as helping a poor person, we do not think that helping a person who is not poor is an act of charity.
Obviously, helping a person that he should not sink into poverty is one of the greatest acts of charity that you can do. However, it requires perceptiveness, seeing not just the externalities of the situation, that the children dress well, or they have a nice auto, but rather, also what is happening inside, like the mother is ill, or the father lost his job.
We have trained ourselves not to pry into people's privacy. But unless we exert ourselves to understand another's situation, how can we help? We must consider is the father's job a job that can really come through with the money to pay for the family's expenses? Does the family have extra expenses such as serious operations, special needs, etc, which are financial drains?
The highest level of charity, as we have learned from the teachings of the Rambam, is to help out your neighbor, your friend, etc, before he falls. Giving a grant, a loan, a gift, is the highest form of charity that you can perform. Waiting until someone collapses financially, is akin to Yankel in the above story, who looked like a hero in the eyes of his villagers, but actually was the cause of the bitter destruction that ensued.
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from the November 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine