For years, I have contemplated writing about this topic, but then thought better of it, not because I didn’t think it was an important topic, but because it was so important that I felt my words may be misunderstood or misconstrued and the damage from misunderstood words could be worse than the benefit gained.
There was another reason why I hesitated, and still hesitate, but that reason is more personal. It is because I feel that I personally suffer in some ways from the very disease that I am cautioning against. Who am I to speak about an area in which I myself could use improvement?
Nevertheless, I have decided to write about this, not as someone who is giving mussar to those much better than I, but rather as a topic for thought and discussion.
Sometimes, talking about something openly is, in and of itself, an important step, because even if the issue is not subject to immediate change, it at least becomes a subject for discussion that might ultimately lead to change.
With that introduction, I want to talk about the topic of accepting matnas bosor vodom, a certain culture that exists among us – for various good reasons – that says, “If someone is giving, grab it!”
What Our Avos Abhorred
This came to mind this week when thinking about the upcoming parshah in which Yaakov Avinu begs Hashem for “lechem le’echol” and “beged lilbosh.” There are two basic lessons we can learn from Yaakov’s request. Firstly, he asked this directly from Hashem. He didn’t ask others to give it to him, and he also limited his request to absolute necessities, basic food and clothing.
Similarly, a few weeks ago, we find Avrohom Avinu loathing to take anything from the king of Sedom, refusing to even accept a shoelace.
There has been a sea-change in attitude regarding this topic over the past couple of generations. When I was growing up, a large percentage of the adults were Holocaust survivors or American Torah pioneers. Most of them had an instinctive aversion to taking money or goods from others as a form of charity. They were proud, even those who had little money. Many of them were horrified at the minutest thought of “having to take tzedakah.”
Their attitude was not some kind of gaavah. On the contrary, it had its source in Torah. In fact, one of the most fervent daily bakashos that we beg from Hashem when we recite Birkas Hamazon is, “Please, Hashem, do not make it necessary for us to resort to the gifts of human hands, nor of their loans, but only of Your Hand that is full, open…”
A Change of Attitude
Perhaps we can say that the attitudes on this issue have changed a lot. A person who doesn’t understand what is wrong with accepting matnas bosor vodom cannot even understand why it is an issue at all. Conversely, the person who does understand can’t understand how anyone would allow himself to take, unless it is the most extenuating of circumstances.
Let me state clearly that I am not referring to the idea of a kollel yungerman taking a kollel check. That is not at all the same. The concept of a Yissochor-Zevulun partnership, a person being supported to learn Torah by others who would like to be partners in that Torah learning, is as old as, well, Yissochor and Zevulun.
What I am talking about is a culture of “they are giving, so take” that I have noticed, to the extent that the takers don’t even realize that this isn’t the optimum way to live.
Now, we live in a dor of tremendous chesed. Klal Yisroel and the amount of chesed we do are simply amazing. Every baal chesed who helps and who gives is engaging in one of the pillars that uphold the world, and these words should not discourage them in any way or take away from the amazing Divine reward that they deserve. I am now talking from the standpoint of the recipients.
Let us outline some of the ways in which we may be affected by this culture of taking.
Detrimental Side Affects
First and foremost, it is possible that this culture shows a lack of emunah and bitachon. A person should understand that his parnassah comes from Hashem. Full stop. One might say, “True, but perhaps Hashem is sending me my parnassah through the gifts of Ploni or Almoni or the distribution of Ploni and Almoni.” The answer to that is that yes, perhaps He is, but have you ever tried the other way? Have you ever tried to do it on your own, without throwing your needs upon others? Certainly, there will always be people who need to come on to others, but who says you should be one of them?
Next is dependence and its related cousin, “I deserve it. It is coming to me.” When a person becomes a taker, it fosters in him a dependence on others that often leads to one thinking that “I deserve this.” I have heard people saying, “I am giving Klal Yisroel zechusim when they help me. This is Hashem’s way of providing for me.” In other words, “I deserve this. This is coming to me.” This leads to a mentality of the recipient barely feeling the need to say thank you. It is the ultimate deficiency in hakoras hatov.
Another tremendous drawback of dependence is that it cows a person into submission. There is a reason why the Torah speaks so strictly about the prohibition of taking a bribe. It is clear that taking something of value, even miniscule value, changes one’s mindset and makes one submissive. (This is not a political column, but there is a reason why governments on the left want to make people dependent on the government.)
Next is the middah of responsibility or, in our language, achrayus. One of the foundations of our emunah is that we are in this world to serve Hashem and earn a portion in the World to Come. The Zohar asks: Why shouldn’t Hashem just give a person a prime spot in Olam Haba regardless of how hard he works on overcoming his yeitzer hara in this world? The Zohar answers that no one wants nahama dekisufa, bread of shame, which means free bread that he didn’t earn on his own.
We see how Chazal viewed taking bread from others that one didn’t earn. They deemed it “bread of shame.” Achrayus means taking responsibility for yourself and your family, not relying on others.
A person who bases aspects of his life and income on what he will get from others for free is lacking achrayus.
Finally, when a person becomes a taker, he loses chashivus for himself, which can have many ramifications. How we view ourselves affects us in a very personal way and also affects how those closest to us, such as our spouse and children, view us, as well. It isn’t a small thing.
The Need to Take
Now, I don’t want this article to be an indictment of large swaths of our community, myself included. There are numerous mitigating factors at play. For example:
We have large families and the average income does not come close to being able to support a large family, especially when you factor in the tremendous costs associated with even a basic frum lifestyle – tuition, food, clothing, simchos, etc.
Another factor? Most large frum communities are located in urban centers where housing and many other aspects of life are much more expensive.
A third factor? We live in “mixed communities,” where the very wealthy and very poor share the same schools, the same shuls, the same everything. Therefore, there is an almost egalitarian way that we think of ourselves. We (or, if not us, often our children) aspire to have the same house, the same car, the same clothing, and the same style simcha as those in a totally different economic bracket. Many of us have a difficult time acknowledging (or explaining to our children) that differences in economic status do not make one less worthy.
There are many more mitigating factors as well, but the bottom line is that it is far easier to preach about not taking matnas bosor vodom then to actually fulfill it, and certainly, in this column, I am not judging people. Indeed, many of the issues could be addressed with very strong, principled leadership.
Nevertheless, just because we cannot and should not judge others doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t know to what we should aspire and what Torah values are with respect to such a thing. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask for rabbinic guidance on this matter. We should.
It isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. One can minimize taking as well. There may be a hierarchy of weaning, with differences from whom one takes – from fellow Yidden, from government bodies, and the list goes on.
Indeed, Chazal teach us that we should try to emulate Hashem in everything he does. Just as Hashem only gives and doesn’t take, so should we aspire to model our own conduct in that way.
May we all be able to fulfill the continuation of the words in Birkas Hamazon cited earlier, “Ki im leYodcha – [that we should only take from] Your Hand, which is full, open, holy and generous, so that we will not feel shame and humiliation for eternity.”
Amein, kein yehi ratzon.