The joke is told of a man who is drowning 50 yards off shore. There are countless variations on this joke, but the simplest political version I know is that the Democrat throws the man 200 yards of line, then drops his own end. And the Republican throws 40 yards of line, because even a drowning man has to learn to help himself.
We think that charity is easy to define: it is helping people by giving them things. At least, that is what we teach children. And it is what liberals think “charity” is when they make the argument that Big Government is doing nothing more than what the Bible prescribes.
But this is a big mistake, even by the most well-meaning conservatives. Charity is not “giving people things.” Charity is about helping people. And there is a very simple proof:
“And when you cut the harvest of your land, do not remove the edge of the field when you cut it, and do not gather the leftovers of your harvest. Leave them for the poor people and the strangers – I am your G-d.” [Leviticus 23:22].
Simple enough, right? Command Peter to leave his assets in the field, for Paul to come along and help himself.
But if it is so simple that Peter should help Paul, why doesn’t the Torah just say, “when you cut the harvest of your field, give 10% (or 20%) to the poor people and the strangers.”?
The answer is simple enough: because it is not charitable to sap people of their own work, the pleasure and sense of accomplishment that one gets for working for our own crust, even if it is from someone else’s field.
The Mishnah (in Pei’ah) goes one step farther: one who does not let the poor people gather the produce in the field but rather collects it himself and distributes it to them is guilty of stealing from the poor.
Isn’t that amazing? The realization that, many thousands of years ago, societal laws were passed down specifically to help people help each other – by raising each other up, by growing each person’s sense of accomplishment and purpose. Welfare reform came before welfare.
Note, too that the charity in this case is also interpersonal, not institutionalized. Bureaucracies are not capable of connecting on a human level. All they can do is give people things, creating a long-term, useless, and wallowing underclass. When we want to do real charity, we connect people with each other. Peter’s field is available; Paul will come and work the corners. And both people become better for it.