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Chapter 1, Mishna 5: “Yose the son of Yochanon the man of Jerusalem said: Your house should be open wide (for guests), the poor should be people of your home, and do not engage in lengthy talk with women. This is said with regards to one’s own wife, certainly with another man’s wife.”
We previously noted how Rashi explains that an “open wide” house means that the house is open on all four sides, so that it is open to anyone. He quotes the Talmud that says that Yoav, the general under King David, made his house like a desert; meaning anyone could join him in his house so that his home appeared ownerless. We asked: what is the significance of the house being open on all four sides? Why not just say that one should host poor people in his home?
When one’s house is open on all four sides, there is a lack of control for the owner. If there are only one or two doorways into a house, then the owner of the house may have control over who is allowed in and out of the house. The fact that all four sides of the house are open to the public demonstrates a lack of ownership in that anyone has the ability to walk in, and whenever they want.
Based on our Mishna, Rashi is teaching us that recognizing the reality of the lack of ownership is involved in the giving of charity. When we see people who are in poverty and lack in material needs, we need to learn to identify with them by recognizing that no person can truly own possessions. In that sense, when one gives charity, they must reflect that they don’t see themselves as real owners of the materials they are giving. When people walked into the house of Yoav, they felt as if there was no owner of the property, as it was ‘like a desert’. This was a high level of charity, giving in a manner in which the poor felt like they were not taking from a person.
In the context of modern times, it is interesting to note that Yoav was the general of his army, and despite his high rank, he reached this level of humility and perfection. When we view our society, the general pattern is that the greater one becomes, the more he becomes removed from the common people, through gates, fences, security, etc. In Judaism, it is the exact opposite: as an individual reaches greater levels of perfection, he identifies more with all human beings.
“…the poor should be people of your home…” Rashi explains that rather than having servants and maidservants, one should have poor people serve in his home and he will receive reward for paying them. The Rambam on our Mishna gives a similar explanation, saying that one should hire poor people as servants rather than acquiring servants. Rambam says that the Sages would degrade those who acquired servants and praise those who hired poor people to serve them.
At first glance, the suggestion of the Mishna is problematic. If I have the opportunity to hire a competent servant or an incompetent poor person, why should I hire the poor person?
To understand our Mishna, we need to understand why people have servants. The value of hiring servants is more than just practical. Servants also add a quality of sophistication to one’s home. Though poor people may not be sophisticated, they can do a practical job. Our Sages did not value sophistication because it stems from a denial of human nature. A person senses his instinctual makeup and tries to deny it by being sophisticated, like eating with specific forks, knives, etc. However, this assumed sophistication is meaningless: the Nazis were also sophisticated in this manner. Such a combination of sophistication with a distorted mindset isn’t impossible. Sophistication does not lead to perfection.
So what do our Sages recommend? That is the lesson of our Mishna: acts of kindness. Notice how our Mishna says that the poor should be ‘people of the home’. The emphasis here, again, is on more than just the act of giving. The giver must identify with those in poverty, sand this identification is to be that, which moves them to care for the poor person. While those who wish to feel sophisticated desire to feel superior, Judaism suggests that a person should desire to identify with people in distressed situations.
At this point, we may explain why the Mishna includes both ‘Your house should be open wide’ and ‘the poor should be people of your home’. The first part is advice on how one should relate to his property. The second part advises a person on how he should relate to himself. It is possible to have either one of them without the other; one could not care about his possessions yet still feel superior to the poor, or, in the opposite scenario, one could identify with the poor, but relate be selfish regarding his possessions.
When a person tries to separate his possessions away from other people, there is a break in his identification with other human beings, and that is an imperfection. The Rambam, towards the end of his philosophical work called ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’, says that at the highest level a person only wants to do loving kindness. Some people claim that the Rambam himself never wrote this because the Rambam always praises intellectual perfection and here he is praising ethical perfection. In truth, though, there is no contradiction. The idea of the Rambam is that a perfected individual will do kindness because naturally he identifies with other human beings. Generally, people are prevented from identifying with others because of their individual egos. Without the ego, a person would naturally identify with others. When one reaches intellectual perfection, they will act kindly because of that natural identification.
This trait of identification can be seen in our forefather Avraham. The Rambam says that Avraham’s effort to go out and convince others about the proper service of God was an expression of love of God. How? Because with his intellectual perfection, there was identification with others and from that identification, he was motivated to give them the greatest good, knowledge of God.