Happy is he who considers the poor

Yankele was chronically sad. Those within his circle urged him to visit a certain rabbi who seemed to have success in helping people out of their doldrums.

By YEHOSHUA SISKIN
September 17, 2010 12:29
GIVING CHARITY is a sure way to increase happiness

People giving charity 311. (photo credit: Chabad.org)

Yankele was chronically sad. Those within his circle urged him to visit a certain rabbi who seemed to have success in helping people out of their doldrums.

Yankele was reluctant to go. He had little enthusiasm for this or any other scheme that was supposed to make him happy.

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Eventually, though, Yankele made an appointment to see the rabbi and when they finally met, Yankele began to complain. “My business is suffering from bad credit and I need a loan but can’t get one,” he sighed. “My sons are not good students, I need them to get serious, but all they do is laugh at me. Worst of all, I need to marry off my daughter, but it is not easy because she is getting older and has no suitors. Can you help me?” The rabbi paused for a moment and then responded: “My dear Yankele, do you really think that life is only about what you need? What if life, in fact, is about what you are needed for? What then?” The rabbi paused for a moment.

“Yankele, all I can promise you is this: The more you help others, the more you will be helped; the more peace you bring to others, the more peaceful you will be; and the happier you make others, the happier you will be.”

Yankele contemplated this statement for a short while and then asked: “But how do I make others happy?” It is one of the great paradoxes of human experience, perhaps, that personal happiness depends on making others happy. Of course, as Yankele understood, making someone happy is not necessarily a simple matter and yet, according to the prophet Elijah, it may not be all that complicated.

In any case, according to Elijah, your reward will be great if you can somehow manage to bring smiles to sad or quarrelsome people.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) records that, one day, when Rabbi Baroka of Huza was in the marketplace, he encountered Elijah the prophet and asked him: “Is there anyone among all these people who will have a share in the world to come?” Elijah answered, “There is none.”

Later, two men came to the marketplace, and Elijah said to Rabbi Baroka, “Those two will have a share in the world to come.” Rabbi Baroka asked the newcomers, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are clowns. When we see someone who is sad, we cheer him up. When we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”

You should do whatever it takes, no matter the expense, to maintain the lifestyle to which another is accustomed, because his dignity and, presumably, his happiness depend on it. Once, in ancient Israel, a wealthy man who became poor asked Hillel for a horse and a servant to run before him. The man had been used to having a horse and runner and demanded that Hillel continue to provide them. The great sage complied with this request and, on one occasion, personally ran before the horse for three miles when he could not afford to hire a runner to do so (Ketubot 67a).

In another famous case, a poor man came before Rava and asked the great sage to give him his usual meal of a plump chicken and old wine.

“But do you not,” asked Rava, “feel worried that you are a burden on the community?” In answer to Rava’s question, the poor man asked, “Do I eat what belongs to others?” And then, answering his own question, the poor man explained, “I eat what is God’s.” At that precise moment, Rava’s sister brought her brother a gift of a plump chicken and some old wine. Rava understood this gift to be a sign from heaven, immediately apologized to the poor man and gave him the chicken and the wine (Ketubot 67b).

It was in the context of acts such as Hillel’s and Rava’s that Rabbi Jonah said: “It is not written, ‘Happy is he who gives to the poor,’ but ‘Happy is he who considers the poor’ (Psalms 41:2), that is, he who contemplates how to fulfill the command to help the poor, which means sparing the poor person’s dignity, no matter what the cost” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’a 8:9, 21b).

It would seem that being able to help someone has to do with getting inside the shoes and even the clothes of that individual. The story is told of the hassidic rebbe who, after several hours of yehidut, or individual counseling, was covered with sweat. When asked why he was sweating, the rebbe explained: “Each person who comes to me requires that I step into his clothes in order to help. I have changed clothes more than a hundred times tonight and that is a lot of work.”

Helping, which is just another word for loving, means being of service. But you cannot serve or express your love for others without knowing what they need, what makes them happy and what makes them sad. There is a hassidic story told by Rabbi Moshe of Sasov about how he learned true love from a peasant named Igor in a tavern. He saw Igor put his arm around a fellow peasant, and in an inebriated voice say, “Ivan, do you love me?” “Of course I love you, Igor.”

“Ivan, do you know what gives me pain?” “No, Igor, I do not know what gives you pain.”

“Ivan, if you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say you love me?” Lastly, there is Rebbe Nahman’s famous story of the rooster prince. A prince loses his mind and thinks he is a rooster. He removes his clothes, sits under a table naked and pecks at his food on the palace floor. The king and queen are beside themselves and call in all their advisers and sages, but no one can help. At last, a wise man comes to the palace and employs a radical strategy. He takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with the prince, telling the prince that he, too, is a rooster. Eventually, the prince befriends the wise man, who then tells the prince that roosters may wear clothes and sit at a table. Slowly, the prince begins to act more human until he becomes a true prince again. (As an aside, some people claim that the wise man is a rabbi who knows what outreach is really all about.) Giving charity is a sure way to increase happiness, at least for the one who gives it. As recorded in the New York Sun (December 28, 2007), “A number of studies have researched exactly why charity leads to happiness. The surprising conclusion is that giving affects our brain chemistry. For example, people who give often report feelings of euphoria, which psychologists have referred to as the ‘Helper’s High.’ They believe that charitable activity induces endorphins that produce a very mild version of the sensations people get from drugs like morphine and heroin.

“Charity also lowers the stress hormones that cause unhappiness. In one 1998 experiment at Duke University, adults were asked to give massages to babies – the idea being that giving a baby pleasure is a compassionate act with no expectation of a reward, even a ‘thank-you’ – in return.

After they performed the massages, the seniors were found to have dramatically lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine in their brains.

“The bottom line from all the research on giving is that it is not just good for your favorite cause; it’s good for you, too. For relief from stress and depression, it’s probably more cost-effective than whatever your doctor might prescribe. For getting a little high, it’s not illegal, and a lot less fattening than booze.”


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