Our forefather, Avraham was known for his tremendous Chessed, the extraordinary acts of kindness he performed with the people of his generation. Our parsha opens with one such example, where only three days after a painful Bris Milah, Avraham sat out in the hot sun waiting for potential guests to walk by so he could provide for them. Eventually, Hashem sent three angels disguised as humans to satisfy Avraham. Besides for this, the angels each had an additional mission, to heal Avraham, to inform him that he would soon have a son, and the last one was sent to destroy the city of Sodom.
What exactly did the people of Sodom do to merit total destruction? Chazal teach us that among their many sins, Sodom forbid any type of “tzedakah,” charity or kindness, in the city. Everyone was expected to provide for themselves without relying on anyone else. They forbid guests from outside the city as well since it violated this principle. This description is in stark contrast to the attitude of Avraham, so well-illustrated at the beginning of the parsha. But why would ignoring these principles warrant complete erasure from the Earth? What is so important about tzedakah that singled out Sodom from any number of evil societies?
Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch explains the mindset behind the mitzvah of charity. Hashem tells us to treat those around us with two basic principles, Mishpat and Tzedakah, Justice and Charity. (See Hoshea 14:10.) These became the guiding principles for those who would follow Hashem, namely, Avraham and his descendants (us!). What exactly constitutes justice and charity? Rav Hirsch explains that justice is when one man can demand something from another because it is already coming to him; it is something he deserves, that belongs to him. Charity is different but not exactly what we would expect. It is something which I cannot demand from anyone, but I am allowed to expect it since Hashem has made it clear that it will be coming to me. If we understand this principle correctly, it totally changes our perspective on giving charity.
The normal belief of every individual is that whatever money he has belongs to him. He worked hard and sacrificed for it, and while the money is truly a blessing from Hashem, now that he has it, it is his to do with as he pleases. He believes that giving charity is important since it teaches him to be giving and provides the opportunity to help others, but any charity he gives should be considered as a gift coming from his own pocket. The explanation Rav Hirsch though, sinks this understanding.
On the surface, Rav Hirsch makes no sense; obviously I can’t demand the money since it’s not mine, but hen how can I expect it to come? I have no connection to it! The true understanding of money is that I work hard and sacrifice for it, and Hashem blesses me with it and allows me to enjoy it; but at the same time He has given me an important job. The money is not truly mine, it’s still Hashem’s; I am simply His steward in spreading it around to those who need it, to those who have not been blessed by Him as I have. And as long as I continue to do my job properly, He will continue to bless me.
This was Sodom’s big mistake. They looked at everything they had as the product of their own sweat and tears. Even if Hashem had blessed them, at this point the money belonged to them. What right did anyone else have to take part? But Avraham knew better. He was one of the richest men in the world, but he knew that he was only a distribution center for Hashem. While he was able to enjoy his money himself, it was just as important for him to share it with the rest of society, all of whom were creations of Hashem. He was so enthusiastic in his duties that he even sat outside in the blazing heat just three days after having surgery.
This is not simply a vort from Rav Hirsch on the pasuk, this is actually how we pasken the halacha! This attitude towards chessed and tzedakah was the defining attribute of Avraham; it was what made him the Father of the Jewish People and was the main attribute which he passed down to us. We must be sure to emulate him and realize that all we have in this world is a gift from Hashem, given to us only because we are responsible to provide for those around us as well. That way, we can all enjoy the blessings He has bestowed upon us.
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