Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) was a Jewish mystic who founded Hasidic Judaism. Popularly known as Baal Shem Tov, which means a person with a good reputation, he was well known for his spiritual vision as well as for his love for the poor. Born in Ukraine into a poor family he slowly became the heart and soul of a spiritual movement which began to be identified as Hasidic Judaism.
One day Baal Shem Tov was immersed in his thoughts while reading sacred scripture in his study. “Give me some alms,” a vagrant begged, standing on the road just outside the window. Baal Shem Tov opened the door and saw a malnourished man in tattered clothes. Taking pity onthe vagabond he wanted to help. However, there was not a penny in his pocket. He thought of getting something from the kitchen. But his wife was not home and he was not sure about what he could find in the kitchen.He looked around in his room and spotted his wife’s wedding ring on the table. Overjoyed bywhat he found he took the ring and gave it to the beggar. When his wife returned home she found her ring missing. Baal Shem Tov casually told her what happened. She was shocked and couldn’t believe her ears. Gasping for breath she exploded, “It was my wedding ring. Don’t you know it was very expensive? Go and get it back immediately from the beggar.”
Baal Shem Tov ran through the streets looking for the beggar. People who saw him running thought something was wrong. So,many of them ran alongside asking what had happened. But he had no time to stop and explain. He had to find the beggar before he disappeared.
Finally, he found the beggar at the bazaar. “The ring I gave you is an expensive one,” he said to the beggar. “When you sell it make sure you get a good price for it.” When people found out what had really happened they were shocked. But they had only respect and admiration for him as they knew thekind of person he was.
What kind of person was Baal Shem Tov?
He was the kind of person who would help anyone in need forgetting himself and his own needs. As far as he was concerned he was not just giving alms but was fulfilling his responsibility to help someone in need. That was why he was willing to give away his wife’s wedding ring to a vagrant without batting an eyelid. The man who came to his door needed help. And he believed it was his responsibility to help even if it meant giving away an expensive wedding ring.
Does this mean we have a responsibility to extend a helping hand like Baal Shem Tov did to those who knock at our own doors? It is always easy for us to put the blame at their doors for their misery and ignore their needs because then there are people who try to take advantage of our willingness to help.
However, if we are able to forget ourselves for a moment and come out of our selfishness we will also do like what Baal Shem Tov did or even more than he did. When we come across people who are less fortunate than we are how do we treat them? Do we look at them as a nuisance and do we try to avoid them?
Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) was the mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. One night he walked into a city court which handled petty cases and took charge of the court relieving the judge on duty for the night. One case was against a woman who had stolen a loaf of bread from a store to feed her hungry children. During hearing she confessed to her guilt.“Since you have admitted your guilt I have no choice but to punish you.” La Guardia said. “Your punishment is a ten-dollar fine or ten days in jail.” And he took off his hat and put ten dollars in it to be paid as the fine for the guilty woman. Then he asked everyone present to pay a fine of one dollar each for allowing something like that to happen in their city. La Guardia was of the opinion that the people of the city had the obligation to take care of the poor which they did not,in turn,leading the woman to steal a loaf of bread to feed her hungry children.
La Guardia truly believed that people had the obligation to build a society where everyone would be given sufficient opportunity to find ways to support themselves. Moreover, he believed that those who are on the periphery of society should be given more help to make them part of the mainstream. Obviously, the city had failed in this respect which prompted him to show leniency to the guilty woman.
Do we think of others, especially the marginalised as human beings like we are? If so we will naturally admit that they also have a right to live with self-respect and dignity like we do. Moreover, we will acknowledge that we have a duty to help them to achieve their right. If this is how we think we will not hesitate to do like Baal Shem Tov did.
Sometimes even more than he did.