Just because its the right thing to do

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I saw something remarkable as I came out of shul the morning before Purim. By the nearby garbage bin, the founder of the shul was throwing out a bunch of soppy tzedakah flyers, which had endured a full night of rain. How do I know that he was doing something remarkable? Because more than one hundred others, myself included, had already stepped over or around the unsightly pile of ruined flyers, rather than throw them out.

The larger group, of which I was one, knew that one of the two people who have almost single-handedly kept the shul functioning for twenty years would clean up the mess. (There is an important lesson here for parents: Even if it is easier to do things yourself than to ask one of the children to help, we do them a disservice by sparing them — at least if we want them to grow up into decent, responsible human beings.)

The justified assumption that someone else would remove the ruined flyers helps explain my laziness and that of a hundred others. In addition, I suspect we were each afraid of becoming a “freier (sucker)” by virtue of doing more than our fair share. Somehow the acute sense of fairness that helps us evade unwanted tasks is not nearly so offended by the fact that someone else will end up bearing a disproportionate burden.

But rather than explaining the ability of most of us to look the other way when something needs to be done, perhaps we would be better served by determining what makes tick the handful in every shul who end up doing almost all the work – e.g., replacing the seforim on the bookshelves, collecting the parashah sheets strewn about, and returning the benches to their proper place after Simchas Torah.

The trend in modern psychology is to focus on successful or fulfilled people to derive the lessons of happy living, rather than on those who are miserable. And we can do the same in this case.

The “doers” seem to be driven by a strong sense of responsibility for what goes on around them. Whenever there is a garbage strike in Jerusalem – usually just before Pesach — and the garbage starts to pile up, one of my neighbors can be counted to wade into the debris to create some kind of order out of the bags haphazardly dumped next to the overflowing garbage bin. Why does she feel responsible when no one else even thinks to do more than complain about the ugliness and the stench?

Those who take on an inordinate share of the responsibility tend to be what sociologist David Reisman once classified as inner-directed people – they do things because they are right, not out of any consideration of gaining status in the eyes of others. Picking up a pile of sopping wet posters and shlepping them in the rain to the nearest garbage strikes most of us as a low return mitzvah. Likely no one will even notice our good deed or think better of us for it. The best to be hoped for is that when we reach 120 one of the maspidim will remember, “Yankel always stayed around to sweep up.”

Emphasizing the middah of tzeis leches (walking humbly) would help us develop more inner-directedness. The Gemara in Avodah Zara (18a) relates how Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon went to visit Rabbi Yose ben Kisma, when the latter was very ill. Rabbi Yose used the occasion to warn Rabbi Chanina that he was pursuing a very dangerous course by teaching Torah in public, at a time when such teaching was punishable by death at the hands of the Romans.

After receiving Rabbi Yose’s warning, Rabbi Chanina asked his older colleague what would be his judgment in Olam Haba. Rabbi Yose inquired whether he had any good deeds to his credit. To which Rabbi Chanina replied that he once mixed up the purse with the money for the Purim meal with that of coins for tzedakah, and mistakenly donated the contents of the former to tzedakah. When he realized his error, he also gave the money designated for tzedakah for their intended purpose, rather than deducting what he had already dispersed. If so, Rabbi Yose told him, “May my portion [in Olam Haba] be comparable to yours and my fate like yours.”

Both Rabbi Yose’s question – Have you ever done anything of merit? – and Rabbi Chanina’s answer are difficult to understand. After all, they had just been discussing the latter’s teaching Torah in public on pain of death. The ba’alei mussar answer that Rabbi Chanina’s teaching of Torah was public. And it is impossible to judge the purity of motivation of anything done publicly. Only when an action is completely hidden from view can we be sure that the underlying motivation was the desire to perform a mitzvah and nothing else.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer once asked Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr to speak for posterity about his role in the early days of Zeirei Agudath Yisrael. Reb Gedaliah refused. He cited the words of Zichronos from the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah: “For it is You Who eternally remembers all forgotten things.” Only that which is forgotten by others, said Reb Gedaliah, quoting the Rizhiner Rebbe, can be assured of being remembered by Hashem. Our good deeds, Reb Gedaliah felt, are cheapened by being spoken about. The special purity of an action done in private is lost.

Many important mitzvos cannot be done without anyone knowing, particularly the direct beneficiary. But if we make it our business to look for opportunities to benefit either an individual or the community undetected, and then refrained from sharing what we had done with anyone, even our spouses, we would experience the special sweetness of a mitzvah performed for no other reason than that it is pleasing in Hashem’s eyes.

That sweetness explains why those who take on a disproportionate share of communal tasks rarely express resentment and do not feel like the “suckers” that the rest of us are so afraid of becoming. They know the unique joy of doing something because it is right, not because it will bring us favor in the eyes of others.

Mishpacha, March 10 2010

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3 Responses

  1. Miriam says:

    Rate this article: 100 stars

  2. chaim says:

    I love this!

  3. Not Emes/Snagville says:

    There is a story with the Alter of Slobodka that reflects this as well. There was an individual in Slobodka that decided that he would be Mekabel Shabbos early and sit and learn in the Beis Hamedrash. When the Alter saw this fellow doing this he called him over and asked him to to reflect on the feelings he has when people come in “regular time” for Mincha. The fellow admitted that he felt disgust that these people thinking they are coming to shul and honoring Shabbos, if they really cared about Hashem and Shabbos they would have come hours earlier like he did. The Alter forbade him from ever coming early again. He said that if you were doing it Lshem Shmayim you would not look down on others who do not do so. I think that one of the amazing Middos of people like JR describes is the fact that they don’t look down on others who don’t do so. Great article.