Shiur #27: Circles of Ethical Responsibility

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #27: Circles of Ethical Responsibility


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



            Kohelet 12:14 states, "For every action God shall bring to judgment, on every hidden thing, whether good or evil."  The following gemara comments on this verse:


What does it mean "whether good or evil"? 

It was taught in the house of Rabbi Yannai: "This refers to a person who gives charity to a poor person in public."  In this vein, one time Rabbi Yannai saw a fellow giving a coin to a poor person in public; he said to [the donor]: "Better that you should not give to him at all than that you should give to him and embarrass him."

In the house of Rabbi Shila, they taught: "This refers to a person who gives charity to a woman in private, because he brings her under suspicion."

Rava said: "This refers to the person who sends his wife uncut meat [from which the non-kosher parts have not been removed] on Friday."  But did not Rava send [such meat to his own wife, Rav Chisda's daughter]?  The daughter of Rav Chisda is different, because her expertise is established.

Rabbi Yochanan would cry when he arrived at this verse: "And it shall come to pass, when ra'ot (evils) that are many and tzarot shall find them" (Devarim 31:21).  [He would say:] "A slave whose master causes ra'ot and tzarot to be found for him, what hope does he have?"  What are "ra'ot" and "tzarot"?  These are evils (ra'ot) that become rivals (tzarot) to one another, such as the wasp and the scorpion.

Shemu'el said: "This refers to the person who causes money to be found for a poor person at the time of his distress."

 (Chagiga 5a)


The above gemara expresses one idea with great clarity, but it includes an ambiguous part as well.  It clearly teaches that acts of giving can also be performed in a problematic fashion.  Thus an act of benevolence (chesed) can involve humiliating a pauper, bringing undeserved suspicion on a poor woman or encouraging the recipient to eat non-kosher meat.  For this reason, the verse in Kohelet tells us, God brings even our good behavior to judgment.  Indeed, even our righteous deeds must be checked for such faults.


            Shemu'el's statement is more difficult.  Why should we view providing for a pauper as a problematic endeavor?  Furthermore, if Shemu'el offers another example of improper giving, why does the gemara place his statement after the quote from Rabbi Yochanan about ra'ot and tzarot?


            Despite the intrusion of Rabbi Yochanan's idea, Rashi explains that Shemu'el's example does indeed belong to the previous discussion.  Shemu'el criticizes a person who does not give to the poor person in a timely fashion: rather, this donor waits until the pauper is in distress and unable to search for more reasonable prices when spending the money.


            In contrast, Rabbeinu Tam understands that Shemu'el is providing an example of rival evils.  His example is that of a poor person capriciously imprisoned by the ruler who is then offered a loan against his property. Had the poor man not been offered a loan, the ruler would have reduced the ransom fee; now that the poor person has access to funds, the ruler demands the more exorbitant fee.  Captivity followed by a forced loan can be termed "rival evils."  Although this interpretation does not connect Shemu'el with the earlier discussion, it certainly does represent another kind of problematic giving.


            Many commentaries point out that Shemu'el's criticism apparently contradicts another gemara which praises the person who gives the pauper a gift at the time of his distress. 


A person who loves his neighbors, who brings close his relatives, who marries the daughter of his sister and who lends a sela to a pauper at the time of his distress — about [such a person], Scripture says: "Then shall you call, and God will answer: you shall beseech and He will say: 'Here I am'" (Yeshayahu 58:9). 

(Yevamot 62b)


Clearly, Rabbeinu Tam's explanation of the gemara in Chagiga resolves the contradiction.  The gemara only censures the person who cause indirect economic damage by his charity; otherwise, helping the poor would certainly be laudable.  Rav Ya'akov Reisher (in his Iyun Ya'akov) suggests another resolution.  Perhaps the gemara in Yevamot refers to the distress of the giver and not of the recipient; thus, it praises the person willing to help others financially despite his own economic struggles.  The gemara in Chagiga criticizes the person who waits too long to truly help the destitute.


            It may also prove helpful to set aside the contradiction and analyze the source from Yevamot independently.  There, helping the poor gets listed together with love of neighbors, closeness to relatives and marrying a niece.  What common theme unifies these disparate elements? 


            The Maharal offers a fantastic interpretation in his Be'er Ha-gola.  (It bears noting that this work is a valuable tool for aggadic interpretation.)  In Be'er Ha-gola, the Maharal defends Chazal from several different critiques.  The second section focuses on gemarot that seem illogical or immoral; the Maharal defends the coherence and ethics of our sages.  At the end of this section, Maharal relates to this gemara, as it had come under censure for promoting marriages between uncles and nieces.


            His answer to that specific problem need not concern us as much as the sterling insight emerging from his reading of the entire passage.  Let us first note that the Maharal assumes that the gemara refers to a Jewish pauper.  The Maharal goes on to argue that this gemara advocates the importance of advancing an extra closeness to those to whom we already bear some kind of relationship.  Such people include neighbors, relatives and fellow Jews: marrying a niece reflects closeness to family, and the poor person whom this gemara speaks of is a another Jew with financial troubles.


            I believe that the Maharal here corrects a possible error in our ethical thinking.  We correctly think that impartiality is an important component of a clear moral philosophy.  Any situation calling for just behavior will lean heavily upon objectivity; yet, we make a mistake when we see impartiality as the dominant theme of all ethical decisions.  From this perspective, we might view favoring friends, relatives and the like with our time and money as immoral behavior.  In opposition to such a view, the gemara in Yevamot contends that the moral person will feel greater responsibility toward those with whom he already has some kind of relationship.


            Lawrence Blum makes this point in the context of his critique of Immanuel Kant's moral theories: 


The Kantian view objects to our being beneficent towards friends on the grounds that in doing so we distribute our beneficence according to personal interest and attachment rather than need or desert.  Against this objection I argue that impartiality as a moral stance is appropriate only in certain circumstances, which do not generally include those of friendship. 

(Friendship, Altruism and Morality, p. 5)


Clearly, a moral person must behave with decency to everyone — friends, relatives and total strangers included.  At the same time, it may be a sign of excellent scruples to feel a greater responsibility towards friends, relatives, neighbors and those who share one's heritage.  Although time and resources are limited and a person cannot always serve both particularistic and universalistic visions, some combination of these two ideas help forge the ideal ethical personality.


            Rav A. Y. Kook (Orot Ha-kodesh, 3:337) contends that the two Jewish paragons of compassion, Avraham and Aharon, reflect these dual themes.  Avraham represents benevolence to the entire world, while Aharon stands for kindness to the Jewish people.  For Rabbi Kook, the ideal ethical personality would incorporate both these goals. 


            Obviously, a person might feel that these two callings invariably conflict and choose to ignore one of these two principles.  However, Rabbi Kook argues that these two themes can complement, rather than contradict, one another.  The scope of universal chesed and the intensity of particularistic chesed can interact in a manner of mutual reinforcement.  The truly ethical person knows that all groups are worthy of his or her largesse and that charitable energy can still be more focused on smaller groups sharing a common identity.