What is real kindness?

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by R’ Yehonasan Gefen (Mishpatim)

Frequently we are either a giver or a receiver of an act of kindness. However, we rearely pay attention to how the small elements of the interaction have a profound impact on how the act of kindness is received and the feelings it evokes. The Torah, when instructing us with regard to lending money to our fellow in need, states, "When you lend money to my people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest upon him. If you take your fellow's garment as security until sunset, you shall return it to him. For it alone is his clothing; it is his garment for his skin - in what should he lie down? So, it will be: if he cries out to Me, I shall listen, for I am compassionate.[1]"

On a superficial level, these mitzvot seem to be fairly straightforward and easy to understand. However, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz derives a very important insight about the Torah's attitude to chesed (kindness) from these verses[2]: this passage deals with a person that fulfills the great kindness of helping his friend by lending him money, and yet the Torah gives him a number of mitzvot to ensure that he perform this chesed in the most optimum way and not diminish its effect. It is instructive to analyze these verses more carefully to highlight their common theme:

"Do not act toward him as a creditor." Rashi, based on the Mechilta, explains that this means that if the lender knows that the borrower is currently unable to pay back the loan, then the lender should not make him feel pressured. Rather, he should behave as if the loan never took place in order not to embarrass the borrower. "Do not lay interest upon him." This refers to the prohibition of lending money with interest (ribbis). Rav Shmuelevitz cites a number of Rabbinic sources that emphasize the seriousness of lending with interest. Rav Shmuelievitz points out that the severity of lending with interest is difficult to understand. It is clear that even one that lends with a small amount of interest is doing a great chesed to the borrower, who is in urgent need of money immediately and is prepared to pay the extra interest at a later date. Nonetheless, the Torah treats this person very strictly.

"If you take your fellow's garment as security until sunset, you shall return it to him." When the borrower is unable to pay back the loan, the lender is permitted to take his personal items as collateral to ensure payment of the loan. However, he must return the items when the borrower needs them. For example, clothing is needed in the daytime; therefore, the lender may only keep it during the night and must return it during the day so that the borrower can use it. This law seems to nullify the whole function of collateral, for if the borrower can still use it when he needs it, he will be far less motivated to pay back the loan. Nonetheless, the Torah demands that the lender respect the borrower's basic needs.

Rav Shmuelevitz explains that the common denominator of these laws is that they stress the importance of doing chesed in as complete a manner as possible, without lessening the effect of the chesed. Consequently, even though it is a great mitzvah to lend money to someone, the lender must be extremely careful not to diminish the effect of his kindness through pressuring the borrower in any fashion. Rav Shmuelevitz says further that the greater the appreciation a person has for the importance of chesed, the more strictly he is treated when he fails to act according to his recognition. Thus, one that lends and charges interest is treated particularly harshly because he appreciates the value of helping the borrower and, nonetheless, chooses to charge him interest.

From the mitzvot that deal with lending money, we learn that when a person does a chesed for his fellow, he must strive to maximize the positive effect of his chesed and not let it be tainted in any way. This advice is applicable in many instances in our daily lives. Very often, a person is approached to do some kind of favor, and if he agrees to do it reluctantly, his hesitation makes the person in need feel uncomfortable about inconveniencing him. Rather, the giver should strive to be as positive as possible about helping his friend. This enthusiasm would greatly enhance the actual positive benefit that results from the act because, in addition to receiving help, the person in need is not made to feel guilty about his request. Similarly, when one gives to charity, he can do it with a smile or with a sour face. The Gemara tells us that one that gives with happy heart receives no less than seventeen blessings for his mitzvah, whereas one that gives unenthusiastically only receives six blessings.[3] We see from the Gemara that a person that performs an act of kindness with a lack of enthusiasm greatly diminishes the effect of his kindness.

A final example of this principle is when one asks someone else to do a chesed in a particular way, and the other agrees but does not take care to do it according to the requirements of the one in need. For example, a wife may ask her husband to clean the house of the mess that has accumulated. His conception of a “tidy” house may be different from hers, so when he cleans up according to his own assessment, she may be rather disappointed with the result. In truth, however, he knows that his wife would like him to clean up according to her level of tidiness. In order to do this chesed properly, he should strive to do it in the manner that she requires.

We have seen that the mitzvot with regard to lending teach us the importance of doing chesed in as complete a manner as possible. May we all merit to help others in the most effective way possible.

[1] Mishpatim, 22:24-26.

[2] Sichos Mussar, p.191-197.

[3] Bava Basra, 9b.


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