“When... any of your brothers is poor, do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother. Open your hand generously, and extend to him any credit he needs to take care of his wants.” (Deut. 15:7-8)
Rav Kook taught that the true goal of tzedakah is not to assist the poor, but rather to refine the character traits of the person giving. After all, if the purpose was to help the poor, God could have provided other means for their support without having to rely on the generosity of society.
“The clearest proof that poverty exists in order to perfect society is the fact that it is a constant and common phenomenon... Thus it must have a clear purpose and design by Divine Providence.
Without a doubt, [assisting] the needy promotes a number of virtues. It develops our traits of humanity, softens the heart’s callousness, fosters our sense of generosity and empathy for others, and enables us to actualize our innate love for goodness and kindness — precious qualities that crown the human soul.”
Below are two stories that illustrate Rav Kook’s remarkable generosity. Both incidents occurred during the years when he served as chief rabbi of Jaffa, from 1904 to 1914. These incidents were not meant to serve as an example for others, but were simply natural expressions of the rabbi’s profound caring and compassion for those who in need.
Rav Kook’s wife once appeared before the community directorate of Jaffa, headed by Mr. Meir Dizengoff, with a serious complaint. She had not received her husband’s salary for months and had no means of support. The leaders of the community were shocked. After investigating the matter, however, they discovered that the rabbi himself was distributing his income to the needy.
The leaders asked Rav Kook how he could act in such a manner, caring more for strangers than his own household.
Rav Kook responded simply, “My family can buy food at the local grocery on credit. Others, however, cannot do so. Who would agree to give them what they need on credit?”
From that day on, the treasurer of the community was given strict orders to give the rabbi’s salary only to his wife.
In 1907, the Jaffa correspondent for the Chavatzelet newspaper published an article criticizing the Anglo-Palestine Bank (now known as Bank Leumi). Apparently, a man applied for a loan in the bank and was asked to provide eleven guarantors. The man managed to find fourteen people who were willing to sign, one of whom was Rav Kook. The bank, however, disqualified most of them - including the rabbi.
The correspondent’s conclusion was that the bank deliberately discriminated against religious Jews.
A few weeks later, a rejoinder appeared in the paper. The author, almost certainly associated with the bank, argued that the bank was justified in its rejection of Rav Kook’s guarantees. He wrote:
“The rabbi is extremely good-hearted and gentle by nature. The poor cling to him. The only reason that there are some beggars who do not knock on his door is because they know he has no money. If they knew that they could get money in exchange for a small piece of paper, which he can always grant them, they would give him no peace.
Furthermore, [if the rabbi would be accepted as a guarantor], he would unwittingly burden himself with debts from which he would be unable to escape. Large sums of money would be lost, and one of the following would suffer: either the esteemed rabbi — and it would be highly unpleasant for the bank to extract money from him — or the bank itself. Therefore, the bank unanimously decided not to honor the rabbi’s guarantees.”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah on Pe'ah, pp. 308-310. Stories from An Angel Among Men by Simcha Raz, translated by R. Moshe Lichtman, pp. 344-346)