Feature - Who Comes First?
(From the words of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits)
Judaism places great stress on interpersonal relationships and numerous commandments instruct us how we should relate to our fellow man. Indeed, the concepts of kindness, charity, value of life, and not speaking badly of others all originate from the Torah.
Numerous sayings in the Tenach and in rabbinical literature also emphasize the importance of giving. For example, Tehillim (Psalms) states, "the world is built on kindness." And Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the great leaders of Lithuanian Jewry, is quoted as saying, "the main purpose of creation is to help others, just like Hashem created all beings from a desire to give, so too it is our obligation to go in His ways."¹
The emphasis on caring for others can be clearly seen by browsing a list of 'gemachim' in religious neighborhoods. A gemach provides a service or items people are in need of, but for no profit. An act of pure kindness. There are gemachim for almost anything you can imagine: books, fans, appliances, clothing and more.
In light of all this caring and giving, let us examine a case in the Gemara that seems difficult to understand.² Two men are stranded in the desert and only one has a bottle of water. If he keeps the water for himself he will probably survive, but if he shares it with his friend it is likely they will both die. What should he do?
One Rabbi – Ben Peturah – argues he should share the water and they should both die. After all, this is preferable to one seeing the death of the other. Rabbi Akiva disagrees and says the one with the bottle must keep it for himself even though his fellow will die. He explains the concept of 'chayecha kodmim' – one should put his own life before that of his friend. The commentaries say the Halacha follows Rabbi Akiva's opinion and indeed a person must put his own life before that of his friend.
How can we reconcile this? On the one hand, our whole focus in life should be on giving to others; on the other, we are told we should put ourselves before anyone else! To answer this problem, we must understand the reasoning behind the idea of 'chayecha kodmim.'
Superficially, one may think 'chayecha kodmim' is a right the Torah gives us. We are allowed to put ourselves before other people because we are more important than them. Wrong! 'Chayecha kodmim' is not a right. It's a responsibility. We are obligated to look after ourselves more than others.
Why? Because a person who does not look after himself properly will never be able to effectively help others. For example, a person may spend so much time involved in the community, helping with 'chesed' projects, etc. that he neglects his own personal growth. He is so busy giving to others that he never gives to himself. He may do some good in the short-term but he is more likely to burn out in the long-term, unable to maintain a lifestyle of self-neglect. Or he may be so busy helping his friends that he neglects his wife and children. This will inevitably lead to family issues which will hinder his effectiveness as a giver to the wider community. Therefore, there is clearly no contradiction between giving to others and focusing on oneself. On the contrary. A person can only build oneself into a genuine giver by focusing on his own growth.
¹ Mishnas Rebbe Aharon, 1st Chelek, p.250.
² Bava Metsia 62a
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Jonny Straus is a well-liked member of the Jerusalem Kollel. He is known for his diligence in learning and sharp mind. After running a successful program in the United States last summer, this past winter another side of Jonny was revealed. He was asked to leave Israel for a few weeks to play a vital role in two trips for unaffiliated Jews. Thanks to the efforts of the Rabbis on the campuses of
Florida International University and the University of Miami over 50 unaffiliated college students headed to Monsey to learn about authentic Judaism. The schedule involved classes in the morning and trips in the afternoon; in the evening they had the option of one-on-one learning or schmoozing about whatever topic they chose. Jonny was specifically asked to teach the more gifted and advanced students. In the mornings he taught two classes, one on Gemara and the other on the relationship between man and his fellow. In the evening he learned with the guys individually and had numerous late night discussions about the deep issues in Judaism.
The guys really took a liking to Jonny, his relaxed manner was very refreshing for them. He gave the impression that he did not judge them and that they could feel free to ask him whatever they wanted. Consequently, he found that they were approaching him with numerous questions without him even prompting them. Even after a long day, they would come to him at 11.00pm wanting to study more Torah with him! One participant told Jonny that he noticed a significant difference between secular education and Torah education. In universities people study for practical reasons - they want to get a good degree and a good job. In yeshiva people study because they appreciate knowledge. Guys were also impressed by the Torah outlook on life; one admitted that he agreed that the Torah's attitude towards relationships made far more sense than the one that he had grown up with.
The feedback was universally positive and Jonny was a particular favorite of the participants. He had helped show them a way of life that many of them knew nothing about. He knows that there is a lot more work to be done in order to help them continue in their awareness of Judaism and Jonny is keeping email contact with all the guys. He is determined that this experience will have a real long-term effect on the lives of the participants.
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A Memorable Visit
This past winter the Jerusalem Kollel received a visit from a JEC trip from America. About thirty unaffiliated Jews spent 10 days in Israel touring and learning about their heritage. One of the highlights of the trip (and for many, the highlight) was their two visits to The Jerusalem Kollel. Guys were paired up with study partners and they learnt together about subjects relating to inter-personal relationships. After that the group rejoined to hear a class from Rabbi Berkovits about the topic they had just studied. The two subjects discussed were, 'judging favorably' and 'not hating your fellow'. They learnt that these ideas are not as straightforward as initially seems and they received a glimpse of the great wisdom of the Torah and its insights into human nature. At the end of the trip a survey was taken of what they had done and their time with The Jerusalem Kollel came out as their biggest highlight - no mean feat when rivaling visits to the Dead Sea and other popular tourist sites! The guys also developed strong connections with their study partners and many are still in contact over email.
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The Jerusalem Kollel Down Under
In a few weeks a group of five talented young families from the Jerusalem Kollel will embark on a unique venture. They will travel to the other side of the world to teach Torah to a community of largely irreligious Jews. The city of Perth eagerly awaits the visit of these young men and their families. It is a follow-up of a highly successful trip last year
that two Jerusalem Kollel members led in the same city. Ariel Aber, Eli Geller and their wives and families effected a real change in the community in their past visit.
On the upcoming trip they will be joined by Jerusalem Kollel members David Rosenthal, Shlomo Wolfson, Yehuda Zachter, and their wives and families. The schedule includes teaching in the local Jewish school and speaking around the community. The guys are confident that they will inspire the community to delve deeper into their Jewish identity. We wish them every success.