On the one hand, it would be wrong to suggest a hierarchy of mitzvot; that one is more important than another. Every mitzvah is to be embraced. But on the other hand, it is also true that each mitzvah asks something different of us; something unique in the facet of our relationship with God that is called into action by the performance of the mitzvah.
One thing we should be able to say of all mitzvot is that their performance benefits us, not God. For, after all, what does God need from us? God, Sovereign of the Universe, does not depend upon us, we depend upon Him. That is plain. But what then does God mean when He commands Moses, “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they shall take for me an offering.”
As we’ve noted, God is not asking for the Children of Israel to make an offering because He requires it. God has no need for the people’s largesse? To suggest otherwise is to diminish God. And yet, God’s command remains. So, if God is not asking for an offering for His own sake, what is He asking for?
The peshat reading of the verse straightforward. But, as in all things, as we look more closely at the text for its deeper sense, we begin to understand what God is really asking of us. In reading the verse, Rashi suggests that li – to me – should be understood as li’shmi – for the sake of My name.
That is, all that we do we should do with an eye toward the glory of God.
By performing mitzvot, we perform acts that speak to our relationship with God, whether in keeping kashrut or lighting Shabbat candles, or laying tefillin. Our performance of these mitzvot is between us and God. However, the command that we perform tzedakah and gemilut chasadim enlarges the field. In the performance of these mitzvot, we also engage our fellows. And it is here that Rashi’s comment seems to have the greatest insight.
In the performance of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim our actions are as if we are raising a mirror to God’s goodness and allowing its reflection to become evident.
Our acts are like the reflected glory of God.
When we engage in acts of giving and loving kindness, we are not only responding to God’s command, we are acting as God’s representatives to the world. We know from our experience and from the Torah that were we to fall short in our acts of tzedakah that God Himself would personally act on behalf of the needy. “Do not mistreat a widow or an orphan,” we are taught. “If you mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will hear their cry. If you take your neighbor’s garment as a security, you must return it to him before sunset. This alone is his covering, the garment for his skin. With what shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will listen for I am compassionate.”
“…for they shall take for me…”
When we act in charity and kindness towards others, we are acting for God, for He is the source of all chesed and charity. We are nothing more than the conduits by which His goodness is brought to the world. By acting with good will and pure hearts as a conduit of God’s goodness, that is, by imitating or reflecting God, we serve God’s purpose best. As the Talmud states,
Said Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina, what is the meaning of the verse, “You shall walk behind the Lord your God”? Could this verse mean that a person may walk behind the Divine Presence? Surely not! For is it not also stated, “for the Lord your God is a devouring fire”? Rather, the former verse must mean that a person should imitate the ways of the Holy One. Just as the Lord clothed the naked . . . so, too, you must supply clothes for the naked poor. Just as the Holy One visited the sick . . . so. too, you should visit the sick. Just as the Holy One buried the dead . . . so too, you must bury the dead. Just as the Holy One comforted mourners . . . so too, you should comfort mourners. (Sotah 14a).
To be holy, to be like God, cannot have material or physical meaning. Rather, to be holy means to reflect God, to do the things that God would do. In other words, to perform acts of tzedakah.
As Jews, we take pride in our personal and institutional focus on charity. Our determination to care for one another has been a defining characteristic of our people for untold generations. One could make the case that it is this quality that, along with God’s grace, has allowed us to endure through the centuries and generations of hardship; that our focus on lifting up even the least among us has allowed us to survive even as mighty civilizations have come crashing down into the dust of history. The Rav notes that compassion has been regarded by our Sages as the distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish people. The Jewish people have been described as “a people from whom compas¬sion and communal responsibility flow naturally.”
Even so, it is not enough to simply do acts of tzedakah. To truly reflect God’s goodness, one must not only do but do with a good heart. Two words that are often used synonymously get to the heart of the distinction. Merachem and rachaman are both used to describe compassionate people. While both the merachem and the rachaman perform acts of charity, only one truly reflects the goodness of God in his actions.
The merahem performs charitable acts, but he may at the same time be unfeeling, even calculating. He may “stand back” and deliberate about whether or not to be benevolent philanthropic. As such, even if he determines to act in a charitable manner, his action is neither noble nor worthy. He is not, in short, a rachaman, for though he has the capacity and even the inclination to love his fellows, he does not, like a rachaman, feel a need to do so.
A rachaman feels compelled to act with compassion. Failing to act with chesed leaves him feeling empty. It is as if he cannot but engage in acts of loving kindness.
Where does the rachaman find a role model for this need, for his attitude and behavior? There can be only one source for one whose behavior reflects the goodness of God and that is God Himself. On Yom Kippur, we acknowledge that God is the source of all forgiveness.
Of course, we are only, at best, a reflection of God’s goodness. No human being possesses the natural and immediate response of forgiveness to every trespass. Only God. Perhaps this is why, in our daily prayer, when we ask God to bestow upon us mercy and compassion, we address Him as avinu av harachaman.
But in God, all things find unity. He is not only av harachaman but also the one who is hamerachem. He acts spontaneously and automatically to our needs. To truly reflect God’s goodness, we must be both rachaman and merachem. We must act but always in a spirit of goodness and forgiveness.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.