Chesed Part V: Don’t help so much. Really.

Don’t help. Really. Stop asking to help.
Doesn’t that conflict with yesterday’s advice?
Well, as the Yiddish saying goes, Es vent zich avu m’redt. “It depends on what we’re talking about.”

There is a brief story in someone’s appreciation of Arthur Conan Doyle.  (I thought it was in the Foreword to my “The Complete Sherlock Holmes”. But it’s not. I had hoped to quote the story verbatim, but we’ll have to do with a paraphrase.)

Doyle was walking with a older or feeble but still proud friend. Doyle was a step or two ahead and heard the friend trip and get back up. Knowing his friend’s proud character, Doyle opted to avoid turning around to help, but to walk on ahead slowly, as if he hadn’t noticed the stumble. It’s easy to question Doyle, but the point should be taken. The kindness was in the inaction, the non-assist.

There are many variations on this theme: Your child wants to put on her shoes by herself. If you offer to help, and she cries out “By myself!”, then step back. If you have some telepathic powers, it would be better not to offer to help at all. But your ESP is off sometimes.

An old or infirm person is slowly hobbling along in front of you. You might think that the kind-hearted thing to do is to patiently wait behind him, in deference. You worry that if you step out in front of him, that you are demonstrating impatience. Or even if you are not impatient, you worry that might make him feel bad, by emphasizing the mere contrast to your increased speed and balance, or by conveying to him that you resent his infirmity for inconveniencing you.

But he knows he is slow. And the knowledge that he is slowing you down might very well be giving him angst; like the feeling I get when I am at a water fountain and three people are waiting behind me. So walking on ahead, with a smile, is usually the right move.

Yes it all depends. But what does it depend on?
I see it like this: A person in material need of some kind also risks suffering a sense of inadequacy due to the need. The pain of that emotion can often cause more trauma than the initial need. If this is the case, someone’s act of extension of self, generosity, becomes an act of intrusion on the sufferer’s ego.

This trait is the theory behind the Rambam’s famous dictum that the highest form of Tzedaka (Charity), after “teaching him how to fish”, is to give in a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other.

In fact, the top five of the Rambam’s (Maimonides’) eight levels of appropriate Tzedaka are built on this foundation. Take a look:

הוד שבחסד


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