Friday, October 12, 2007
The Sweetness of Self Reliance
After the flood Noach sends out a dove, which returns with an olive branch in its mouth. According to the Gemorah, the dove was saying, "I'd rather eat something bitter that was provided by G-d's hand than receive the sweetest honey from the hand of man." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that a dove doesn’t normally eat olive branches, but the dove brought back an olive branch as a metaphorical statement that the bitterest food in freedom tastes sweeter than the sweetest food in captivity.
Rashi states that the man referred to is Noach. Why does Rashi make a point of telling us that the man that the yonah speaks of resentfully is Noach, when this is clear from context? Rav Henoch Leibowitz explains that Rashi is saying that the dove felt uncomfortable being handed food EVEN from Noach. The dove preferred to be self-reliant even to the services of Noach who cared for the animals under his charge with generosity and compassion.
The message in this metaphor is that we should be sensitive to the sensibilities of people in need. Beyond noticing that someone needs help, we must remember that no one likes requiring assistance. It is for good reason that we pray to Hashem daily that the hand of G-d alone should satisfy our needs and that we should not have to turn to gifts or favors from any man. Help from even the kindest people is difficult to accept because inherent in any receiving is an uncomfortable feeling of subservience.
We should strive to help people in a way that increases their dignity. This is why on the Rambam's list of levels of tzedakah the highest is giving someone a job. It is this Jewish wisdom of helping in a respectful manner that inspired a best selling New York Times author to take on the topic of giving in a book based on the Rambam’s eight levels of Ztedakka. This new book is called Rambam’s Ladder, by Julie Salamon. It is well written, and thoughtful as well as thought provoking and I recommend it.
The idea of giving in a way that keeps in mind the discomfort inherent in taking charity is particularly relevant to anyone in a position of authority. Children need parents, teachers, and even older siblings to assist them as they grow. Workers need supervisors, patients need doctors, and everyone needs advice. Whether we are disciplining, teaching, overseeing, treating, or advising, the means and the end are always equally important. It may be challenging and even paradoxical, yet we must strive to help others in a way that increases independence, always remembering the lesson of the dove.
(This is one of the pieces that has been edited and expanded for my upcoming sefer on the parshiot. Look for it within the year, please G-d).