Making Time for Chesed: A Study Guide

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May 22 2023

One of the themes of Megillat Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, is chesed, kindness. Our rabbis tell us that this is the reason why Megillah Ruth is included in Tanach:

Source 1: Ruth Rabbah 2:14

אמר ר זעירא מגלה זו אין בה לא טומאה ולא טהרה ולא איסור ולא היתר ולמה נכתבה ללמדך כמה שכר טוב לגומלי חסדים.

R. Zei’ra said: This scroll [of Ruth] tells us nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, either of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.

There are times when opportunities to do kindness conflict with other considerations.  Let's look at the following scenarios:

One night, after returning home for a long day at work, Elliot gets a call from his friend Yossi who asks for some help moving furniture. Elliot is very tired and he was looking forward to going to sleep early.  What should he do?

Dina plans to volunteer at a soup kitchen, when she gets a call from her older sister Michelle, who is not feeling well and asks Dina to babysit.  Should Dina help her sister or go to the soup kitchen?

Michael’s friends plan to go one Shabbat afternoon to visit their friend Tzvi who just broke his leg, but Michael normally attends a Mishna study group at that time.  What should he do?

The first case deals with a conflict between doing chesed for someone else at the expense of their own needs, the second with a conflict between two acts of kindness, and the third with a conflict between an act of kindness and a religious matter, specifically learning Torah.

Please consider the following questions:

Have you ever been in situation when you had to decide between an act of kindness and another important activity?  What did you do?  Is the decision that you made applicable to any of the scenarios above?

If someone did not do a chesed for you because of a conflicting consideration, how would you feel?

Is it possible for someone to be too involved in acts of kindness?  Can you think of any examples?

Some acts of kindness have a specific name such as visiting the sick, "bikur cholim" and inviting guests, "hachnasat orchim."  Others, such as holding the door for someone with a heavy package or offering someone a ride home, do not have a specific name and are categorized generically as chesed.  In delineating the different types of chesed, Rambam writes:

Source 2: Rambam, Hilchot Avel 14:1

אע"פ שכל מצות אלו מדבריהם הרי הן בכלל ואהבת לרעך כמוך, כל הדברים שאתה רוצה שיעשו אותם לך אחרים, עשה אתה אותן לאחיך בתורה ובמצות.

Although all these mitzvot are rabbinic in nature, they are part of the biblical commandment of “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” that is: what you would have others do to you, do to your brother in Torah and commandments.

How does Rambam's categorization influence our performance of these acts?  

Does it provide criteria for deciding when to engage in act of kindness? 

R. Akiva teaches us an important lesson about conflicts between an act of kindness and one's own personal needs:

Source 3: Baba Metzia 62a

שנים שהיו מהלכין בדרך וביד אחד מהן קיתון של מים אם שותין שניהם מתים ואם שותה אחד מהן מגיע לישוב דרש בן פטורא מוטב שישתו שניהם וימותו ואל יראה אחד מהם במיתתו של חבירו עד שבא רבי עקיבא ולימד וחי אחיך עמך חייך קודמים לחיי חבירך.

[A discussion arose regarding] two people who are travelling through the desert and one of them has a jug of water.  If they share the water both will die and if one of them drinks the water, he will survive.  Ben Petura ruled that it is preferable that they both drink and die rather than one drink and watch his fellow die until R. Akiva came along and taught [the verse (Vayikra 25:35) states] "and your brother shall live with you" [to teach that] your life comes before the life of your friend.

While R. Akiva is discussing a life threatening situation, the Gemara, Baba Metzia 33a, applies this principle to any situation where one must choose between one's own needs and helping others.  It is interesting that the same R. Akiva, who teaches that loving your neighbor as yourself is a very important principle (Sifra, Parshat Kedoshim no. 2), also teaches that one must take care of oneself before one takes care of others.  

In considering case 1, how do you think taking care of oneself and helping others should be balanced? 

How can we determine when putting one's own needs first is a legitimate claim and when is it a convenient excuse for not helping someone else?

R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Ha'Amek Davar, Vayikra 19:18, teaches that one can determine whether personal needs are a legitimate claim or convenient excuse by imaging oneself in the position of the recipient.  What would you expect of others if you were in the same situation of need and your friends had conflicts with their own personal needs?

When faced with the choice to do one of two acts of kindness, consider the relative needs of each recipient.  The Midrash, Sifri, Parshat Re'eh no. 62, states that when dealing with the poor, "the one who is hungriest comes first. Also, consider the relationship of the benefactor to the recipient.  R. Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch states:

Source #4: Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 251:3

הנותן לבניו ובנותיו הגדולים ... וכן הנותן מתנות לאביו והם צריכים להם הרי זה בכלל צדקה ולא עוד אלא שצריך להקדימו לאחרים ואפילו אינו בנו ולא אביו אלא קרובו צריך להקדימו לכל אדם.

One who gives to his adult sons or daughters … or one who gives gifts to his father and they need it, this is a form of charity, and one should give precedence to them over others.  Even if the person is not an immediate relative, but they are related, one should give precedence to them over others.

It is important to note that:

R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, Ahavat Chesed, Dinei Mitzvat Halva'ah 6:14, writes that the rules relating to priorities in charity relate to all types of acts of kindness. 

R. Pinchas HaLevi Hurvitz, Panim Yafot, Devarim 15:7, writes that one's family supersedes others even if the needs of others are more pressing.  This position is also adopted by R. Moshe Sofer, Chatam Sofer, Y.D. no. 331.

How would you apply these two factors to Dina's dilemma in case 2? Who has a greater need for Dina's service? What would be the consequences at the soup kitchen if Dina does not go, and the consequences for Michelle if Dina does go? Would the decision be different if the soup kitchen was counting on her and would not be able to operate properly without her?

In considering case 3, Rambam teaches:

Source #6: Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:4

היה לפניו עשיית מצוה ותלמוד תורה אם אפשר למצוה להעשות ע"י אחרים לא יפסיק תלמודו. ואם לאו יעשה המצוה ויחזור לתלמודו.

If one has the opportunity to perform a mitzvah or to study Torah, if it is possible for the mitzvah to be performed by someone else, one should not interrupt one's study.  If not, one should perform the mitzvah and continue studying.

How would you apply Rambam's statement to Michael's conflict?  Is Michael's mitzvah of visiting his friend something that someone else can do?  Do you think it is necessary for Michael to visit Tzvi with all of his friends or can he go at a different time and avoid missing learning session?  Does it make a difference if Michael is not comfortable visiting Tzvi alone?

What role does personal preference play in the last two cases?  Is it possible that if Dina had tickets to a concert, she would be able to tell her sister that personal needs take precedence, yet her desire to volunteer at a soup kitchen is not relevant?  Does it depend on what she would expect others to do if she were in a similar situation?

We have seen in this discussion the importance of chesed and how we can enhance our own lives by helping others.  We should always seek out chesed opportunities, even when they may be inconvenient.  When they conflict with other things that are important to us, we should try to find creative ways to make time for chesed. 

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