Vayera – Philanthropy: Doing Because You Want to Not Just Because it is What’s Right

We find in this week’s Torah portion of Vayera the destruction of Sodom. Among the many reasons why it deserved annihilation was because of their refusal to be charitable; it in fact became illegal under Sodomite law to take care of strangers or guests from outside the city. This became known as the trait of Sodom and in fact the prophet Yechezkel warns the Jewish people, “Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister: pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease were hers and her daughters’, and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Yechezkel 16:49).

There is a fascinating Mishna in Pirkey Avos that mentions this trait of Sodom:
5:10 There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is a boor (or ignoramus, עם הארץ). One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is a median characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a chassid (pious person). And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.

“What is mine is mine and what is your is yours, this is the median trait, but some say this is the trait of Sodom.” Rabbeinu Yonah asks that if we take it literally that a person will not share with anyone though he is not a taker, why then is there an argument of what kind of person he is? The Gemara in Kesubos 68a clearly says that withholding tzedaka is the trait of Sodom and in many places the sages say this type of person is completely wicked. It does not make sense that there would be an opinion amongst the sages that this type of trait would be an average trait?!

Thus, Rabbeinu Yonah felt compelled to explain the Mishna as referring to a person who does give to the needy when obligated, out of fear of Hashem, but it doesn’t come natural to him because he is miserly. His attitude is “I’ll support the poor who come to my door  because the Torah tells me to since I am a G-D fearing Jew, but who  cares whether this feeling of giving comes natural to me or not” – this trait itself is an average trait. However, there are those who say that this trait itself is the trait of Sodom and its roots are very bad until one acquires the trait of giving away (ותרנות). One who does not support the hand of the poor and destitute at all, everyone would without a doubt agree is bad, and G-D forbid the sages of the Mishna would call them average, but one who gives tzedakah out of Fear of Heaven rather  than naturally is what the argument is about as to  whether this is an average trait or a trait of Sodom. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rabbeinu Yonah is saying something quite shocking and is a tremendous eye opener! It is possible for a person to be giving lots of money, at least a tenth of his earning in maaser (tithes), besides money to those who come to him begging for charity and if he is really rich he might be giving millions of dollars, yet he is doing it only because he is meticulous in his observance of halacha, Jewish Law, since he is a G-D fearing Jew, but if it was up to him he wouldn’t give anyone a dime because he is too cheap. Since he is giving and not for some ulterior motive like to get a tax cut or for fame, for example too have his name on a building, how then can anyone say that this is the character of Sodom and has very evil roots; he is still doing the right thing and doing it out of fear of Hashem; what is wrong with that!!!

There is an incredible nuance learnt from Rabbeinu Yonah! It is not enough to be G-D Fearing, to do the right thing in terms of the trait of giving, because deep down inside he is still stingy and a miser. Rather one must feel naturally compelled to give to those who are in need and if one does not, then it is debatable whether at the very least he is just nothing special or at the very worst rooted in evil like the people of Sodom.

On the other hand Rabbeinu Yona explains that if one’s attitude is “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, is an ignoramus” because granted he is a giver but he is also a taker and does not realize “that one who hates gifts is a formula for life” which is a good trait. Where as one who has the attitude of “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours, is pious” which means he takes the opposite extremes of having a natural feeling of being a giver and hating gifts. He wants to give and not take from others which is a trait above the letter of the law, that is why he is considered pious. This takes a lot of strategy and brainpower to be able to support yourself without any help and still have the means to be able to give with open arms to those who are in need, with a natural fervor and passion.