Q. I recently did a
kindness for someone. But someone else wanted to do the same kindness, and felt hurt that
he was now unable to help. Am I required to forgo an opportunity to do help when I know
that someone else would like to do it instead? GG
A. I think we're in good shape when we are competing over mitzvot
(good deeds), and not the petty and unimportant things that people are usually fighting
But precisely because Jewish tradition recognizes the transcendent
value of good deeds, it also recognizes that we have to be equitable in allocating them.
According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to "steal" someone else's mitzvah. The
Rabbinical court can even impose a fine on someone when they deprive the "owner"
of an opportunity to fulfill a commandment!
So we see that the ability to do a mitzvah is very valuable, so
valuable that if someone is deprived of this ability he deserves recompense. But actually
the mitzvah is even more valuable than this. Here is the explanation of Rabbi Yechiel
Weinberg, a leading Rabbi of the last generation. "The fine of ten gold pieces is not
a recompense for the stolen mitzvah. For who can even begin to assess the reward for a
mitzvah? Rather, the fine is for the sorrow which he caused his fellow, for every person
is upset at having lost the opportunity to perform a good deed."
We learn from Rabbi Weinberg that the ability to do a mitzvah is
invaluable. And we also see that every person, not only an especially pious one, has a
powerful desire to do right and help others.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you did something wrong. The
mitzvah is not "stolen" unless there is some objective indication that the
person actually "owns" it. For instance, the father is responsible for
circumcising the son. So if someone else takes the baby and performs the circumcision,
then the father has been deprived. A shochet (ritual slaughterer) is responsible for
covering the blood of the animal, so if someone else fulfills this mitzvah, then the
shochet has been deprived.
In your case, it may be appropriate for you to forego a kindness if
you know that it is primarily someone else's responsibility. If you are first in line but
you know that someone else would really like to do the mitzva, then you are in an
admirable position. You can choose between two mitzvot: helping the person in need by
doing the mitzvah or helping the second person by allowing him to perform it in your
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 91b; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 382; Responsa Seridei