(From the book Kol Mishalotecha, parshat Vayera)
Yossi is a very busy man. However, he makes sure to take some time out of every week to help people who are going through a tough time. The local social service agency knows him well, and regularly refers him to families in need.
Over the past few months, Yossi has been dedicating two days a week to helping families. On Mondays, he visits the Cohen family. As Yossi comes up the Cohen’s walkway, he hears excited little voices calling "Yossi! Yossi! Yossi is here!" The Cohen children then follow Yossi around the house, thanking him for everything he does, from his help cleaning the house, to the gift of homemade cakes and cookies, freshly baked by Yossi’s wife.
David Cohen, the patriarch of the family, is a loving, capable father. He tries his best to see to the needs of his family. However, since the tragic passing of his wife, the challenge of filling the needs of his children overwhelms him, at times. He often works late hours, leaving his children to come home to an empty house. Yossi does his best to fill in, organizing the house, playing with the children, and even doing homework with them.
The same scene repeats itself every week, as he gets up to leave. The Cohen children, and sometimes their father, hug Yossi, thank him profusely, and ask him to come back again.
Thursday is also a volunteer day for Yossi. On that day, he visits the Levi family. However, his experience there is somewhat different. As Yossi makes his way around the house, seeing to the family’s needs, Mr. and Mrs. Levi stand with their arms folded, glaring at him, wordlessly. Sometimes, Yossi comes to the house and is greeted by no one, just a piece of paper taped to the door, with a long list of tasks for him to complete.
Yossi does his best to see to the family’s needs. He attempts to give the house an orderly, homey feel, despite the chaos that descends between his visits. He fills the refrigerator with nutritious foods. He cuts vegetables, and arranges them on plates, in order to encourage the children to eat healthily.
However, despite his best efforts, Yossi feels resentment, rather than gratitude, on the part of the Levis. Sometimes he wonders if he’s helping the Levi family, at all, as they seem to indicate that he’s intruding, rather than assisting them. A number of times, he’s asked the family’s social worker whether or not he should continue his visits. Each time he asks, though, she insists "Yossi, I know you can’t see it, but you have no idea what you’re doing for this family. In the months before you came, the situation was even worse. I see how much you’re helping them, even if it’s not obvious to you. I know they don’t express it, but they wait for you to come every week."
Lately, Yossi’s place of work has needed him to come in more. He often finds himself with only one day available during the week for volunteer work. Yossi is unsure what to do. He knows that both the Cohen and Levi families benefit greatly from his assistance. If he can only visit one of them, whom should he choose? Perhaps he should give up his day at the Levis. It is a much more pleasant, satisfying experience for him to visit the Cohens. Or, perhaps, for exactly that reason, he should opt to visit the Levi family. Perhaps it is an even greater act of kindness for him to help the Levis, specifically because they fail to show him gratitude. What should Yossi do?
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, shlita:
In Gemara Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) masechet Pe’ah (chapter 8, law 6), it is written that Rabbi Eliezer had guests, and they blessed him. Rabbi Eliezer said "this is not good reward." Other guests came to Rabbi Eliezer, and cursed him. Rabbi Eliezer said "this is good reward."
Rabbi Dov Lior, shlita:
Maximizing reward should not be the primary factor under consideration. What is important is to ascertain which of the two families requires assistance more. If it seems that both families are equally in need of assistance, Yossi should help the Cohen family. It is more pleasant to help them, and Yossi's continued assistance will encourage their properly placed gratitude.
We learn from here that it is better for Yossi to help the Levi family, because they do not acknowledge his help. (This should not be taken to mean that the gratitude that the Cohen family shows Yossi reduces his reward. Rather, this means that the fact that Yossi assists the Levi family, despite their ungratefulness, earns him an even higher level of reward.)