« Extremely Stupid and Incredibly Dim | Main | The Bitch Is Back »

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse sixteen

We’re still on these fours:

As to almsgiving there are four dispositions: he who desires to give, but that others should not give, his eye is evil toward what appertains to others; he who desires that others should give, but will not give himself, his eye evil against what is his own; he who gives and wishes others to give, is a saint; he who will not give and does not wish others to give, is a wicked man.

I’m not altogether happy with desire here (this is Joseph Hertz; Judah Goldin and R. Travers Herford use wish throughout) (Rabbi Hertz uses desire a the beginning and wish at the end, as you see, but in the original Hebrew the word is only used once and implied in the rest of the sentence, rather than there being two different words in Hebrew as you might have inferred from there being two different words in English) (where was I?) (Oh, yeah) I’m not altogether happy with either desire or wish; the Hebrew word is ratzah, which is kinda sorta to be pleased with or to be satisfied by or maybe to accept. In other words, it’s not just an idle preference, but a standard.

I think the best way is to turn it around, and think of the conditions that would not satisfy our fellow. There’s a particular need for charity—the local food pantry is getting bare. The obvious first category is the asshole, who says that he isn’t giving and he doesn’t care if anybody else gives; the poor can starve, for all he cares, because he’s got his. The obvious next category is the fellow who says that he really hopes that somebody will give, and if somebody else gives and nobody gets turned away to starve, then he’s happy not go into his pocket. The sages say this guy has an evil eye toward his own stuff, that is, the way he looks after his own stuff is negative, a shortcoming, with bad consequences.

But what about the guy who sees there’s a need, loads up the car with groceries, and drops them off at the pantry. Done! He’s the saint, right? No, the sages say, he’s not the saint; he has sufficed himself with his own charity, but by ignoring the neighbors, he is also seeing (or in this case not seeing) with the evil eye. The saint is the one with a communitarian view, where a person is not only responsible for his own actions but for the actions of others. He does give, of course, out of his own, but that is not enough. He also asks his neighbors to get involved.

Does this make the saint a busybody? Yes. Of course; saints are always busybodies, and thank goodness not everybody is a saint. On the other hand, we don’t want to live in a world without any saints; we have in abundance the actually wicked as well as those (like myself) who are satisfied if the need is met, whoever meets it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,