I'll be delivering the derashah in a shul this Shabbos, so here's a preview:
The Dubna Magid tells of a thief who encountered a wagon driver, whacked the driver over the head and took off down the road with his horses. After a few days of pursuit the driver eventually catches up with the thief - who turns to him and says, “Well, it’s about time; I’ve been exercising your horses for three days! My fee is $500.”
We don’t really reward the thief’s unintended “service” – but we do reward unintended tzedakah; Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said as much in commenting on the mitzvah of שכחה.
In שכחה, a harvester who forgets stalks of grain gets credit for accidental tzedakah. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah took that further in a Sifri, saying (ה)מאבד סלע מתוך ידו ומצאה עני והלך ונתפרנס בה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו זכה – If I lose a coin and a pauper finds it and uses it, I get credit as though I had given tzedakah.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s central point is about the nature of tzedakah, but his observation also highlights another important issue: The role of the tzedakah recipient, without whom this act of tzedakah does not exist.
At the moment when our gentleman dropped his coin, he was a schlemiel. But then the עני picked up the coin – and now, instant philanthropist! Or to borrow from quantum physics, the owner of the coin is in an unresolved state when he drops the coin, until either that coin rolls into a sewer drain unnoticed and so he’s a schlemiel, or a pauper takes the coin and thereby resolves him into a baal tzedakah.
Bottom line: The עני/pauper completes the donor’s mitzvah. Indeed, some suggest that this is why we don’t recite a berachah upon the mitzvah of giving tzedakah – because there must also be a recipient, and we cannot thank HaShem for creating a needy person. Without a needy person, the mitzvah cannot happen; it’s a joint effort.
Viewing a mitzvah as a joint effort is part of a larger halachic and philosophical picture which portrays all Jews as interlocking puzzle pieces, individual spirits that are part of a greater soul, nanomachines whose cooperative contributions create collective success in the mission of fulfilling Torah. It’s the way we view community, and Jewish community in particular. We are not independent pieces; Rambam calls the person who performs mitzvos on his own a פורש מן הציבור. We interconnect, and we contribute to each other’s righteousness, knowingly and unknowingly, in order to bring the greater mission to fruition.
This interconnectedness mandates the Torah’s overarching לפני עור prohibition; ולפני עור לא תתן מכשול, I am not allowed to do anything which will cause others to stumble in sin. My responsibility is not only to my own righteousness, but also to burnish the righteousness of others around me until it shines.
And this interconnectedness mandates the concept of כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, of mutual mitzvah responsibility. I can fulfill mitzvos on behalf of others, such as by reciting kiddush for them, and Rav Soloveitchik explained that this is because my mitzvah of kiddush is incomplete so long as someone else has yet to fulfill his mitzvah. We all interlock.
Within this greater interconnectedness, I am not only capable of turning others into tzaddikim, but Halachah demands that I turn others into tzaddikim. An עני doesn’t only have the option of picking up the coin and so turning a schlemiel into a philanthropist – he is actually obligated to do so.
This interconnectedness has daily practical applications:
• A Yom Tov meal that shared with others fulfills the Torah’s mandate of inviting others to join our celebration.
• A kohen serves as a kohen only if people come to him to bring a korban on their behalf.
• When we daven with a community, it’s תפילה בציבור only when people are participating. The Shulchan Aruch writes regarding the repetition of Shemoneh Esreih that people’s responses of Amen are what make the chazzan’s berachos valid.
• Or think about lashon hara; when I refuse to listen to the latest scandal du jour, I save the other person from a significant עבירה.
• Or look at talmud torah – When I listen to the rebbe, I convert him into a מגיד שיעור, enabling him to fulfill the great mitzvah of teaching Torah.
This is why we create kehillos, shuls, batei midrash and chavrusos, gemachs and chevros kadisha ר"ל, vaadim and so on – because we need others in order to make our mitzvos complete, and because we are obligated to do the same on their behalf. All of us, multiple times each day, have opportunities to play the role of the עני, helping others to go from schlemiels to tzaddikim by cooperating in their mitzvos.
I know Canadians don’t pay much attention to basketball, but in this mission we are like Scottie Pippen, who was admitted to the Basketball Hall of Fame last week.
Scottie Pippen made his career as second fiddle to Michael Jordan, winning six championships with him. Pippen was a great player in his own right, one of the greatest defensive players ever and a fantastic shooter, even named recently as one of the Top 50 basketball players of all time – but his claim to fame is as the man who made someone else shine.
For hockey fans, think of what Jari Kurri did for Wayne Gretzky.
Being Scottie Pippen or Jari Kurri is what Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s tzedakah recipient does for the accidental בעל צדקה, it’s what we do when we answer Amen or listen to a shiur or decline to hear לשון הרע - we assist others in their mitzvos, we help them shine, and so we make the greater, interconnected whole a success.
1. The Dubna Magid's story, in its original form (which I have altered somewhat), appears in Mishlei Yaakov to Ki Tetze, on Bilam's attempt to gain credit for blessing the Jews. Bilam does not get credit, since he intended to harm us.
2. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's comment is in Sifri Ki Tetze 73; note that Rashi to Devarim 24:19 uses a slightly altered version. Also, I saw one writer who sought to read the Sifri's כאלו as though this was not wholly considered tzedakah, but I do not believe this read is correct.
4. On the issue of intent in tzedakah, note that we look at tzedakah not as Latin caritas, an act of charitable love for the needy, and not as Arabic zakat, an act of intentional sacrifice, but as tzedek, a natural transfer of HaShem’s wealth to those who deserve it. As Pirkei Avos says, תן לו משלו שאתה ושלך שלו, all that we distribute really belongs to HaShem. So I don’t need to give it lovingly, willingly, or even knowingly; tzedakah is tzedakah, regardless.
5. On the role of the pauper in enabling tzedakah, see also R’ Akiva’s reply to Turnus Rufus regarding tzedakah and בנים אתם, in Bava Basra 10a.
6. The importance of an Amen in making a chazan's berachah legitimate is in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 124:4.
7. Part of an alternative ending I considered for this derashah: The concept of turning others into tzaddikim is an unusual application of what Rav Chaim of Volozhin described as the purpose of our very existence. As Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Yitzchak, described his father’s counsel: וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות – “These were his constant words to me: This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his powers.” Certainly, the normal way to fulfill Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s advice is to offer chesed, to give tzedakah, but there are a myriad ways in which we interlock, and in which we can be מועיל לאחריני, we can turn the people around us into tzaddikim.