When Helping is Harming
The Limits of Assisting an Ass
A while ago I was at baggage collection in the airport, trying to figure out how to transport four suitcases/ duffels all by myself. A neighbor of mine who happened to be there showed me an ingenious way of loading them all onto a single cart. I thanked him profusely and we went our separate ways. A few minutes later, of course, the entire thing toppled over.
This popped back into my mind when thinking about a situation that appeared in yesterday’s Torah reading. If you come across an enemy of yours who is having difficulty with the burden on his donkey, then it’s a mitzvah to help him. But there’s an interesting twist. The Mishnah says that it only applies if the donkey’s owner also cooperates. But if the owner sits back and tells you that it’s your mitzvah and you should do it by yourself, then there’s no mitzvah at all.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has some very powerful words to say about this:
A fundamental principle of biblical morality is involved here: reciprocity. We owe duties to those who recognize the concept of duty. We have a responsibility to those who acknowledge responsibility. If, however, the person concerned refuses to exercise his duty to his own overloaded animal, then we do not make things better by coming to his aid. On the contrary, we make it worse, by allowing him to escape responsibility. We become – in the language of addiction-therapy – co-dependents. We reinforce the very problem we are trying to help solve. We allow the individual to believe that there will always be someone else to do what is morally necessary. We create what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’. We may feel that we are being super-righteous; and we may be right. But we are thereby making ourselves better at the cost of making society worse.
There’s an obvious lesson here for contemporary Jewish society. There is a bizarre modern frum phenomenon of people who refuse to engage in effort to support themselves (or protect themselves). It may feel righteous to help them anyway, but you’re encouraging them to escape responsibility. You’ve reinforced the very problem you are trying to help solve, and while making yourself better, it comes at the cost of making society worse.
Giving handouts to yeshivos and kollel families, who are under the misguided impression that this is the situation Hashem wants, perpetuates the problem of poverty and (in Israel) its effect on the economy. In fact, it even increases it, because the recipients then raise a next generation to believe that this is the correct path. That’s why I’m a supporter of Lemaan Achai - a local charity organization whose motto is “Smart Chesed.” They don’t give handouts of money to people who refuse to help themselves; instead, they have a team of professionals who figure out how to help families gain financial independence. Tzedakah is not about feeling good or personal growth - it’s about helping society in a smart way.
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Meanwhile, this Shabbos I’ll be speaking at Bais Tefilah in Woodmere, and after that I’ll be making my way to Teaneck, Miami, Hollywood and Boca. I’d be glad to meet with museum patrons - please email Ellen at advancement@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org to arrange it.
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