It has already been noted that the Alter Rebbe devoted many of the letters that comprise Iggeret HaKodesh to the theme of tzedakah, particularly when dedicated to the support of those who engage in Torah study and divine service in Eretz Yisrael. As its opening salutation indicates, the present letter is one of those sent to a particular community. Its economic state was dismal,1 and word had reached the Alter Rebbe that its charitable contributions for the Kollel Chabad Fund had fallen off accordingly.
The Alter Rebbe therefore writes that he is aware of their hardships, but it remains imperative that they maintain their regular level of generosity. The reasons he enumerates are based on the requirements of Torah law, as well as on considerations that surpass the letter of the law.
אהוביי אחיי ורעיי אשר כנפשי
My beloved, my brethren and friends, who are to me like my own soul.
Certain qualities are uniquely found in the closeness and love of brothers, and other qualities, in the warm devotion of friends.2 In writing "my brethren and friends," the Alter Rebbe indicates that his letter wells from both kinds of brotherliness.
הנה לא נעלם ממני צוק העתים
The hardships of these times are not hidden from me,
אשר נתדלדלה הפרנסה
in that the means for earning a livelihood have declined,
ובפרט הידועים לי ממחניכם, אשר מטה ידם
especially among those known to me from your community, whose hands have faltered,
בלי שום משען ומשענה
so that they are without any providers at all,3with no work available for either husband or wife,
May G‑d show them compassion and speedily bring them respite from their straits.
ועם כל זה, לא טוב הם עושים לנפשם
Nonetheless, they are not acting rightly unto their souls,
לפי הנשמע, אשר קפצו ידם הפתוחה מעודם עד היום הזה
according to reports that they close their hand which all their life long, to this very day, has been open
ליתן ביד מלאה ועין יפה לכל הצטרכות ההכרחיות, לדי מחסורי האביונים נקיים
to give with a full hand and a generous eye5 for all vital necessities to satisfy the needs of the "clean" destitutes6
אשר עיניהם נשואות אלינו
whose eyes are lifted unto us.
This refers to the destitute of Eretz Yisrael who had absolutely no means of support other than the charitable fund of Kollel Chabad.
ואם אנו לא נרחם עליהם, חס ושלום, מי ירחם עליהם
If we will not pity them, heaven forfend, who will?
וחי אחיך עמך, כתיב
And it is written,7 "...so that your brother may live with you!"
I.e., one should share with his brethren even that which is most essential for one's own life.
ולא אמרו: חייך קודמין, אלא כשביד אחד קיתון של מים וכו׳
As to the ruling of the Sages that8 "Your own life takes precedence," this applies only in a case "when one has a pitcher of water in hand...";
If a traveler in the desert has just enough water to sustain his own life until civilization is reached, and if he shares it with his friend they will both inevitably die, then his own life takes precedence.
שהוא דבר השוה לשניהם בשוה לשתות להשיב נפשם בצמא
that is, when it is equally essential that both drink in order to save their lives from thirst.
אבל אם העני צריך לחם לפי הטף, ועצים וכסות בקרה, וכהאי גוונא
But if a pauper needs bread for the mouths of babes, and firewood and clothes against the cold, and the like,
כל דברים אלו קודמין לכל מלבושי כבוד וזבח משפחה, בשר ודגים וכל מטעמים, של האדם וכל בני ביתו
then all these take precedence over any fine apparel and family feasts, with meat and fish and all kinds of delicacies, for oneself and all of one's household.9
ולא שייך בזה: חייך קודמין
The rule that "your own life takes precedence" does not apply in such a case,
מאחר שאינן חיי נפש ממש, כמו של העני, שוה בשוה ממש
because these are not really essential to life, as are [the needs] of the poor, in true equality,
כדאיתא בנדרים, דף פ׳
as is discussed in Nedarim, page 80[b].
The Gemara speaks there about a stream that originates in one town and flows through another. If it does not provide enough drinking water for both towns, the water rights belong to the inhabitants of the first town. The same applies to the water that both towns need for their livestock or for washing their clothes. If, however, the second town needs drinking water for its citizens, while the first town only needs the water for washing clothes, then the needs of the second town prevail.
We thus see, that if the respective needs are not exactly equal, then one does not say "one's own life take precedence," even in a situation where one's own needs are quite real and far from frivolous. When fathers and mothers are crying out for bread for their little ones, and for firewood and clothing to protect them from the cold, this surely takes precedence over the valid but non-essential needs of one's own family.
At this point the Yiddish original of the present commentary is interrupted by the colloquial interjection, Nisht do gedacht (lit., "May this not be spoken of here!") — "May we never know of such misfortunes!"
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