Giving Back

It was an exceedingly hot and humid summer day, and sweat was pouring down the faces of the two friends waiting at the bus stop. They had attended the late-morning bris of a mutual relative, and had apparently just missed the twice-hourly bus to the community where they lived.

As minutes passed, and their discomfort grew, they started considering the possibility of taking a car service. Though it was a significant expense neither could really afford, the two young men — both of whom had grown up accustomed to air-conditioning and worked exclusively indoors — were finding the heat unbearable.

It was then that a minivan, its back seats piled high with boxes, pulled up. Though neither of the men waiting at the bus stop knew the name of the driver, they recognized him as someone who lived near the shul in which they davened. The driver promptly jumped out of his seat, rearranged the items in the back, and welcomed the two into his car, assuring them that he was going in their direction.

Sitting in the cool car, the two young men began to offer their effusive gratitude for this act of chessed.

The driver brushed off the words of thanks. “This is my father’s car,” he said. “He gave it to me on the condition that I share it with others.”

At first they looked at him in surprise. The middle-aged driver looked like someone who could afford his own car. Only when he repeated his words and then firmly informed them that he would be taking them “door to door” did they realize that he was referring to our Father in Shamayim.

This driver recognized the truth that all of what we have actually belongs to Hashem, and is given to us so that we can use it appropriately. In the same vein, those who merit financial success are no more than trustees and caretakers of money that belongs to the poor and the underprivileged.

In his sefer Ohev Yisrael, the Apta Rav, zy”a, explains that whenever a person sees that he has more money than he actually needs for his living expenses, he should realize that the “extra” money isn’t his, but that of the poor. Therefore, as the Torah informs us this week (Devarim 15:10), “Giving, you shall give him, and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for because of this matter Hashem your G-d will bless you in all your deeds…” Give the poor man what is actually his, for it was in order that you should be able to give him, that Hashem blesses you with more than you actually need.

The Chofetz Chaim even states that when Chazal instruct that one should not dispense more than a fifth of his possessions as tzedakah, they are not speaking to the wealthy. The reason for the rule is that the prospective donor’s own life and basic needs come before those of another. “Your life comes first,” declares the Chofetz Chaim, “but not your wealth.”

The Ben Ish Chai tells a parable of the time a man came to repay a loan. To the astonishment of the borrower, the lender expressed his deepest gratitude and showered him with blessings.

“Why are you thanking me? I am only giving you back your own money!” the lender asked.

The lender explained that, sadly, his personal experience had shown that many people who borrowed from him never paid him back, and so he viewed the repayment as a gift.

There are some individuals who give very generous amounts to tzedakah and resent what they perceive as the failure of others, including some far wealthier individuals, to give “their fair share.” However, the failure of some individuals to pass this difficult nisayon is what makes the actions of those who do rise above so much more praiseworthy.

“Do not feel bad when you give him,” the Ben Ish Chai teaches, even though others aren’t giving as much as they can afford, “for because of this matter” — the very fact that you are giving while others aren’t — “Hashem your G-d will bless you in all your deeds…”

For, like the borrower in the parable, you fulfilled your obligations and gave the poor “back” what is rightfully theirs. Had this been the norm, something that “everyone did,” it would have hardly been worthy of a reward. But since others don’t do it, and you did — Hashem will grant you special blessings.