The Jews of Vitebsk, if you want to know the truth, at the time were known not to be generous givers to charity. When money needed to be raised for a worthy cause, it was no simple matter to extract hard currency out of them without applying a good deal of pressure. To their credit, however, it must be said that the Vitebskers could always be counted on to provide food for the hungry; indeed, the Talmud states that giving ready-to-eat food is greater than giving money to charity because it provides immediate relief, while the benefit of money is indirect.
One day a chassid from Vitebsk came to see the Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the third Chabad Rebbe, 1789-1866). He told the Rebbe that his only son was about to be drafted into the Russian army. Previously, only-sons were exempted automatically, but this year there was a new, tough policy and their precious child was in danger. “Please, Rebbe,” he entreated, “help us, save us.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel shook his head sadly: “I’m sorry, I cannot help you in this matter.”
-Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles
“A Plate of Food”
Tales from the Past
What does stinginess with money, a willingness to feed the hungry, and an only son of a chassid being drafted into the Russian army have in common? On the surface, not very much, but Rabbi Tilles’ commentary tells the whole tale.
But not quite all of it as you’ll see.
The chassid, after much begging and pleading, could not change the Rebbe’s answer, so he turned to another option, the Rebbe’s youngest son, with whom the chassid was good friends. The chassid beseeched the Rebbe’s son (and his eventual successor, Rabbi Shmuel 1834-1882; known as the Maharash), and the young Shmuel promised he would do what he could to change the Rebbe’s response. But when Shmuel approached his father with the matter, he was given the same answer that the Rebbe gave the chassid: “I cannot help him at all.”
Shortly thereafter, the Rabbi Menachem Mendel summoned his son to his study and asked him to bring a Midrash Tanchuma. The Rebbe leafed through it to the week’s reading of Mishpatim, and showed his son section 15 there, concerning the verse, “If money you will lend” (Exodus 22:24):
Says the Holy One, blessed be He: “A poor person was struggling for his life, to escape starvation, and you gave him a coin and saved his life. I promise that I will pay you back ‘a life for a life’: If tomorrow your son or daughter will be seriously ill or in any life-threatening situation, I will remember the good deed that you did… and I will repay you ‘a life for a life.’ “
Rabbi Shmuel was perplexed. What did his father have in mind in showing him this passage?
A few days later, the news reached Lubavitch that the chassid’s son had been released, and for no apparent reason. The Rebbe was visibly delighted by the report.
But there was a reason, at least according to Chassidic midrash (remember, we have no way of telling if this story is even remotely factual…but that’s not the point). There was something important in the lesson the Rebbe taught his son a few days earlier. What had the family of the draftee done to merit that their son be released from service and the restoration of his life? When questioned, neither parent could think of anything special. Then the boy’s mother thought of something.
“That very day, a poor person came to the house and asked us to give him something to eat. At first we told him that we were so worried about our son who was going to be drafted that day that we really couldn’t deal with him. But then he pleaded with us: it had been a long time since he had eaten anything at all and he was starving, and how could it be that a Jew did not have time or food for another Jew who was so hungry! We realized our mistake and served him a huge meal, from what we had prepared to be a special farewell meal for our son. None of us had the appetite to eat anyway, because we were so upset. Then…”
While this is a very inspiring tale, why should we pay any special attention to it? The story is like a thousand other stories of the Chassidim. What can it teach a Christian about kindness, charity, and giving life?
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” -Matthew 25:31-40 (ESV)
So consider the next time someone needs a helping hand from you, even when you are in distress yourself, even when you are distracted by your own problems, and even if your problems are serious, such as the impending loss of your only son. The gift of one small morsel of food (and if it’s a huge meal, so much the better) to a hungry man may make a tremendous difference, not only for the hungry man, but for you.
Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. -Psalm 34:14 (ESV)
Maybe you’re thinking I’m being unreasonable. Maybe you’re thinking that I can’t be serious. Maybe you’re thinking that it would be too hard for you to help another person while facing a crisis of your own. And yet, God calls us to serve Him under all circumstances. Certainly we expect Him to serve us no matter what we’re going through and no matter what else is happening in the world.
You and I are only flesh and blood and bone. We’re weak. How can we stand up under the pressures of life and still be expected to help someone less fortunate than we are? There are two ways to express the answer:
You have to keep moving forward. As long as you’re holding on to where you were yesterday, you’re standing still.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Don’t Just Stand There”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.
Do good. Seek peace. Keep swimming.