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Home » Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo: Selfishness

Submitted by on August 13, 2013 – 4:31 amNo Comment | 2,764 views

Most Unwelcoming City

According to the readers of the Conde Nast travel magazine, Newark, NJ, is the unfriendliest city in the world. This dubious distinction is hotly contested by Newark’s residents, who claim that the magazine’s readers have never set foot outside of Newark’s bustling airport to visit the city, but the unflattering appellation of selfishness seems to have stuck to the city like a bad nightmare.

Newark is not the first city to gain such an unwelcoming reputation. That distinction belongs to the Biblical city Sodom and compared to Sodom, Newark is a gracious host. The people of Sodom were prosperous, but they did not want to share their prosperity with others. Worried, that visitors might fall in love with their beautiful metropolis and way of life, they instituted policies to discourage tourism.

If a tourist wandered into Sodom, he was refused lodging. If a beggar wandered into Sodom it was illegal to extend alms. If an outsider was discovered visiting family or friends, he and his hosts were subjected to torture and sometimes even execution. Compared to Sodom, Newark is a paradise.

The Torah contends that the people of Sodom were wicked and terribly sinful to G-d. Our sages taught that they were wicked with their bodies and sinful with their funds.[1] They neither extended themselves or their property to those in need. Their motive was not hatred, they were driven purely by selfishness and an irrational fear that if they gave a little it would set a precedent to give much more.

The population of Sodom was roundly punished for their selfishness and their philosophy was widely rejected by societies throughout history. Almost every society ascribes moral value to charity and considers it a social ethic. Living in prosperity while others suffer is frowned upon; Sodom’s point of view has been soundly defeated.

The Moral Obligation

Yet no nation, but the Jews, has made charity a legal requirement. It is considered proper and admirable, but outside of tax dollars allocated toward social programs, charity is not obligatory. Jews are the only exception. It is notable that when G-d resolved to destroy Sodom, He said, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do? I know that He will instruct his children and household after him to keep the ways of G-d and perform charity and justice.”[2] The juxtaposition of charity and justice imply that Abraham’s children would proclaim charity not selfishness - innerstreamonly laudable, but also just. This implies of course that withholding charity is not only an act of selfishness, but injustice and thus presumably illegal.

Though the Jewish legal system does not penalize failure to contribute, the Torah emphasizes repeatedly that giving to charity augers bountiful Divine blessing and that withholding charity results in Divine punishment. That Jewish courts don’t penalize those who refuse to contribute[3] is not a diminution of the esteem in which charity is held, but a testament thereof. It is our way of proclaiming that such kindness can only be repaid by G-d and that withholding such kindness can only be addressed by G-d.

Looking Down

This explains a fascinating Midrashic teaching on the confession made by our ancestors. Upon bringing the final installment of their triennial contribution to the Levites and the Poor, the donor would proclaim that he faithfully discharged his entire obligation and conclude with the statement,” Look down from Your holy dwelling, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given to us, as You swore to our forefathers a land flowing with milk and honey.”[4]

The Midrash linked the words “look down from your holy dwelling,” to the words that the Torah uses to describe Abraham’s first view of Sodom after its destruction, “And he looked over [at] Sodom. The Hebrew word for look down is “hashkifa” and the Hebrew word for looked over is “Vayashkef.” The Midrash states that through the generosity of our gift we transform the curse of “he looked over,” vayashkef, to the blessing of “look down,” hashkifa.”[5]

At first glance we find no reason to link Sodom and the final installment of our triennial contribution, but in a penetrating analysis, Rabbi Meir Blumenfield explains the link.

Selfishness

The beginning of Sodom’s downfall was their boundless appetite for more and their intensive selfishness of spirit. This attitude led them to spiritual atrophy, atrocious decisions and horrendous policies. The antidote to Sodom is the adoption of a system that mandates charitable giving. When we fulfill our Divine mandate to support the Levite and the poor, those who lack the means to support themselves, G-d adopts the very opposite view from the one He adopted toward Sodom.

There might indeed be many philanthropists that give more than the Jew gave in the Temple, but the difference is that the philanthropist gives by choice and the Jew gave by law. Giving by choice demonstrates generosity, but it still connotes ownership. I own the funds and offer it to you out of the generosity of my heart. This means that I reserve the right to change my mind and keep my money. The Jew brings money to the Temple knowing that it doesn’t belong to him. The first ten percent of his earnings belong to G-d. He cannot choose to keep it to himself; that would be theft.

G-d revealed his plans for Sodom to Abraham precisely because Abraham would teach his children to turn charity into an obligation. When we perform this obligation properly we reverse the cultural mindset of Sodom and thus transform Sodom’s curse into a blessing. The vayashkef of Sodom becomes the hashkifa of our charity. Look down from heaven and bless your nation Israel.

Visionary
This teaching inspired me when I read it in Rabbi Blumenfield’s book, Toras Chayim on the Parsha.  But when I learned that Rabbi Blumenfield served as a Rabbi in Newark in the 1950s, his words struck me as visionary. Speaking to his fellow residents, years before his city was designated unfriendly, he explained the spiritual underpinnings of rejecting visitors and the antidote to it.

Whether Newark deserves the title or not, we would all do well to heed the lesson.  Life is a slippery slope and the best way to avoid the slide is to stay above the slope. To avoid the appellation, most unfriendly, we must realize that what is ours is not ours alone, but ours to share.



[1] Genesis 13: 13. See also Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a.

[2] Genesis 18: 16-18.

[3] Though there are no set punishments for withholding charity, Jewish law authorizes the courts to compel Jews to donate.

[4] Deuteronomy 26:15.

[5] Tanchumah and rabbah ad loc.

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