By Rabbi Naftoly Bier
In ויקרא פרק כ”ה, Leviticus 25:35,39, the Torah begins וכי ימוך אחיך, “If your brother becomes impoverished… you shall strengthen him (35)… you shall not treat him as a slave but as a resident… (39)”. The Medrash Rabba 34:10 comments, More than what the בעל הבית, the “philanthropist” does for the poor, the destitute contribute much more to the philanthropist!
At first that seems incongruous! After all, the person who is destitute could be on the verge of emotional and physical collapse and by assisting him, one is enabling the person to be a true, dedicated subject of Hashem! If he has a family, there is a positive future for them all, all while the benefactor is but dispensing some needed money.
The תפארת ציון, authored by רבי יצחק זאב אדלער (1843-1917) explains that on the contrary; what is meant is that the poor person is enabling the benefactor to ensure that he, his family, and generations to come will be able to serve Hashem with vigor and vibrancy. Though the recipient might actually not lead a spiritual life, at the time that the assistance is generously given, the donor gains reward as if it is actualized!
The Medrash brings proof to this idea from the story of רות and בועז, Book of Ruth 2:19. Boaz had been that day greatly kind to Ruth. When Ruth returned to her former mother-in-law, נעמי, Naomi, “she related all that transpired that day” and said, “The name of the man that I did for him today is Boaz.” What did she do for him? On the contrary, he validated her, made her feel welcome, fed her, and enabled her to feel accepted! The Medrash derives the aforementioned lesson from Ruth.
Nevertheless, it seems unbecoming for Ruth to articulate this sentiment. Where is her הכרת הטוב, her expression of profound gratitude to Boaz. In fact, in verse 10, she expressed it to him in a noble, selfless manner?
Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l (1918-2008), former Rosh Yeshiva of yeshivas Chofetz Chaim teaches that רות הצדקת, that Ruth definitely conveyed her heartfelt gratefulness and recognized the complete selflessness of Boaz. But when one is the recipient of another’s beneficence, one’s sense of their inner dignity can be compromised due to their need to have to rely on another’s assistance.
The מהר”ל, Maharal, explains that the essence of life—full existence—is defined as one who is self-independent. When one needs the assistance of another, and especially when one seeks presents and a helping hand, one is in the category of “עני חשוב כמת, a poor person is considered as dead.” This is due to the engendering of a loss of dignity and in turn a mitigation of self-esteem.
She therefore correctly assessed the situation and recognized that she was not only a recipient but a true, dynamic benefactor! A most important lesson! One should never compromise their intuitive sense of inner dignity and nobility.
We find a passage in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 11a, which contains a similar but more profound lesson. The Gemara relates a story that occurred when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was sitting and teaching, and he smelled the odor of garlic. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was very sensitive and could not tolerate this odor. He said: Whoever ate garlic should leave. Rabbi Chiya stood up and left. Out of respect for Rabbi Chiya, all those in attendance stood up and left. The next day, in the morning, Rabbi Shimon, son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, found Rabbi Chiya, and he said to him: Are you the one who disturbed my father by coming to the lecture with the foul smell of garlic? Rabbi Chiya said to him: there should not be such behavior among the Jewish people. I would do no such thing, but I assumed the blame and left so that the one who did so would not be embarrassed.
The Maharsha (1555-1631) asks a couple of questions. The גמרא continues and narrates stories similar to the mentioned one, stating that everyone acted in a similar manner to the previous generation. Why; isn’t it logical that one should act in a manner to prevent shame to another? How could Rav Shimon ask Rav Chiya if he ate the garlic; of course a person of his stature would never cause pain to another? Moreso, if everyone left together with him, it was obvious that they were protecting him, emphatically declaring it definitely wasn’t him?
He answers that the question was, “How could you cause ביטול תורה ברבים, that the hundreds of people being taught by my illustrious father, רבי יהודה הנשיא, the codifier of the Mishnah, would en masse leave the בית מדרש, study hall, and curtail Torah study? Rav Chiya answered, to protect the dignity of one person takes precedence over the study of Torah—even in public forums.
But there is another issue that has to be grappled with. Can a person present themselves as a “sinner”, mitigate or compromise their own dignity to protect another from embarrassment? Despite the fact that the disgrace that Rav Chiya would endure, would be insignificant compared to the one who truly ate the garlic, for everyone would assume he didn’t eat it, nevertheless losing one’s dignity in any manner is even more important than ביטול תורה ברבים! The גמרא, Talmud therefore quotes many instances that it is not only permissible, but obligatory to protect another’s dignity by putting oneself in an uncomfortable position, that is insignificant in comparison to another.
The lesson of the immeasurable importance of one’s self-worth, self-dignity, and nobility is one that we are being taught by Ruth and the גמרא סנהדרין.