Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Swapping Places with the Poor
Empathy. Sympathy. Compassion. We use these synonyms to express the
feelings aroused in us when bad things happen to others. What is the
difference between empathy and sympathy? Sympathy is feeling sorry for
someone. Empathy is being able to relate to someone. Sympathy is when
you feel bad for someone else - empathy is when you feel bad with
someone else. Empathy is when you've been there; sympathy is when
Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) says (Koheles/Ecclesiastes 5:11):
The sleep of the simple labourer is sleep, whether he has eaten much or
little. But the fullness of the rich man doesn't let him sleep.
Sefarim note that the wording at the end of the verse seems
unnecessarily verbose. It could have said simply, But satiety
(indigestion?) doesn't let the wealthy man sleep. Due to this anomaly,
they see the "him" cited at the verse's end as referring back to the poor
labourer: The worker should by all measures be sleeping peacefully at
night, but the riches of the wealthy man don't let him - the poor man -
sleep. Why not? Some see this as indicitive of the old Jones's complex. The
poor man can't sleep not because he lacks anything per-se, but because
he's gazing at his wealthy neighbours across the street. "Why can't I have
what they do... a wife like him, a house like them, a car, a job, etc.?" Is
it deficiency, or jealousy, that keeps him awake at night?
Perhaps we can offer a different interpretation. One of Avraham Avinu's
ten famous tests was to leave the comforts of home and travel to a
foreign land. There he was met by famine and was unable to settle,
forcing him once again to uproot. At this stage in Avraham's life he
already had a reputation for his hospitality. Everyone knew; if you
needed a tent in which to rest, or a nice hot meal, Avraham and Sarah
was the address to come to. Why would Hashem take away this mitzvah
of his, and force him to suffer the indignity of being an impoverished
wayfarer? Is it to say that his own hospitality was in some way deficient?
Yes and no. In truth, Avraham's hospitality was above and beyond
anything one could expect. His sympathy for the weary and hungry was
endless. But there was no empathy. Avraham had grown up in relative
physical comfort. He didn't know what it felt like to wander in scathing
desert heat all day long, and the relief one felt when he realized at least
he'd be given a comfortable bed and a warm meal. His hacnosas orchim
would never be complete unless he could empathize with the people he
helped. The test of Lech lecha - go out from your home - enabled him to
There is a verse in this week's parsha (22:24):
If you lend money to My nation - to the poor person who is with you.
Rashi addresses the strange wording, "to the poor person who is with
you." "When you give," Rashi explains, "you should imagine you are the
poor person." One who has been poor before knows what it means
when bills come and you have no idea how you will pay them. When
lack of funds is not preventing you from getting that new cell-phone or
upgrading your car, but is keeping you from obtaining the bare
necessities, and is a source of embarrassment for your family.
Sometimes we give, and the recipient doesn't seem satisfied. Sometimes
they brazenly ask for more. "Chuztpah!" we remark after they've left.
"He's going to tell me how much I should give?!" We're right. It is a
chutzpah. He should receive gracefully whatever we're willing to give. But
have we emphasized with him? Do we in some way blame him for his
position, as if it could never happen to us? Perhaps he needs the money
to pay doctor's bills (a reality hard for Canadians to comprehend). Or to
buy his children respectable clothing. After weeks away from home, he
realizes he still doesn't have enough money. Should he stay "on the
road," or come home not having raised the funds he desperately needs?
Tough choice. Not one we'd like to make. He's frustrated,
understandably, and he's bitter, and that's what you see. It doesn't
necessarily make it right, but if Chazal teach that poverty causes man to
transgress the gravest of sins, can we really hold him responsible for his
Before you reach into your wallet to give, says Rashi, or before you pass
judgement ("they're all just fakers anyway - no?"), imagine yourself as the
poor person. No family or friends to help out. No bank account. No
credit cards. Hungry mouths to feed. Teenage children who dream of
getting married with a degree of respectability. And you don't even know
how you're going to pay this month's electricity bill. For those of us who
have lived more-or-less insulated lives, it's a difficult exercise in
visualization. Try to feel it, and only then give.
Perhaps this could be the meaning of the above verse: The wealth and
good fortune of the rich doesn't let him - the poor fellow, sleep - the
wealthy can at times get so comfortable that they fall totally out of touch
with the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves. Sometimes
their satiation doesn't let the poor sleep at night.
Of course money is not the only thing we give of ourselves to others.
We are sometimes asked to give our time, our energies, our patience.
It doesn't really matter what we're giving. What matters is to give with
at least a small feeling and understanding for the needs of those we're
Perhaps tangentially but only minimally so, and without trying to toot my
own horn, here may be the place to address what seems to be the
common practice of Yeshiva and school boards worldwide: to pay
rebbes, even with years of experience and large families, a salary which
if not heavily supplemented by side-jobs place them squarely below the
poverty line. Not to mention marrying off children and other large
expenses. While no one goes into teaching Torah in order to get rich,
one wonders if those deciding how much to pay teachers have ever
considered if they could make do on such a salary. We're not talking
about luxuries, but living like a mentsch. How much "peace-of-mind" can
a rebbe/teacher possibly have when he comes home after a tiring day in
Yeshiva and has no idea how he's going to meet his mortgage payment,
pay for his son's tefilin and bar mitzva gear, etc.? I know I'm not
offering a solution to the severe cash-flow shortage in the mosdos - there
are others more qualified than myself who can do that. But I believe, and I
speak not as a teacher but as a parent who expects the best chinuch for
my children, that chinuch should be a field in which a good teacher can
stay even as his family grows, and live in the relative comfort of not
having to worry about the most basic needs. Perhaps were boards of
directors to adapt the attitude of "the poor person who is with you" a-la
Rashi then at least the dividing line between reasonable expectations and
reality would be narrowed.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by Mr. Zalmen Deutsch, in memory of
his father, R' Yaakov Tzvi Mordechai Yehuda, and in memory of the holy
rebbe, author of Kedushas Yom Tov.
And by R' Yitzchak Goldstein, in praise and appreciation of his Refuah
Sheleima 20 years ago. And in honour of the birth of a grandson to his
daughter and son-in-law, R' Henach Feintzeig.
Text Copyright © 2004 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org