Charity is a Mitzvah Too! (Parshat Re’eh)

One Dollar Bills
One Dollar Bills

I often become startled – if not embarrassed when I find myself around those who hate to give. Pirkei Avot 5:13 teaches us that there are four types of givers. There is one who wishes to give but that others should not. He begrudges others! There is one who believes that others should give, but that he does not have to. He begrudges himself! There is one who gives and believes that others should give too. He is a Chassid (pious person)! Finally there is one who believes that he does not have to give, nor should others. He is wicked! When I find a situation of someone asking for help (especially a person dressed in rags – God forbid) other than considering my own responsibility to give, I find myself reciting this Mishnah. Indeed, the Mishnah is telling us the truth!

It is hard to believe that there are people who believe in the not-to-give-for-everyone approach. They believe not only that they should not give – but that others should not give too. They become visibly angry when they see others giving to someone in need. “Let him go and get some work!” they shout at the top of their voices! In a particular shul where I daven, I have seen one person become so angry that he feels it quite befitting to do anything he can to embarrass those coming around asking for assistance – literally begging. Judging by his face and his body language – I often wonder if he could actually become violent when noticing someone asking for assistance!

At one point I recall this person suggesting to one of them that they (the poor person) need to give Maaser (a tenth of their earnings) for charity themselves – failing to give the man standing in front of him, pleading for help.

Though seeing this shocked me, it wasn’t until I saw another individual in the same shul shouting a similar response. “Let them go and work”! he shouted for all to hear! “We have no obligation to give them anything!” he shouted. I just stood there not knowing what to say. I’m certainly not a somebody of any kind in the shul, and I feel my comments would be severely criticized. I felt myself having these tremendously ambivalent feelings. Sometimes I wish I had some authority (wealth) so that my view would stand for something. It seems it is only the opinion of the wealthy that is ever taken seriously! Alas – I am just a simple person hoping that the shul I daven in will accept me and not throw me out!

I thought to myself – what a shame! We have a Torah. In it, we see a Mitzvah like Shabbat – which these fellows certainly claim to keep. That, they will say – is a Mitzvah from the Torah! Then again – it will be Sukkot – and they will be selecting the most expensive Etrog they can find. That, they say, is a Mitzvah from the Torah. As for Kashrut – they too will stick to a kosher diet – stating that yet again – that is certainly a Mitzvah from the Torah. Charity?! Who is responsible for a person who has nothing? Let him go and work! The Torah has no good words of help for this unfortunate individual… Or so they think…

Parshat Re’eh and Charity

In this week’s Parshah – the theme of charity – literally Tzedakkah (righteousness – the right thing to do!) – is dominant. It stands out so clearly that one can must be blind not to be able to see what it says! Of course, it’s not just this week’s Parshah. The Shulchan Aruch has 13 chapters devoted to understanding the laws of charity (Yoreh Deah chapters 247-259). Again I think to myself… were I to ask these fellows at shul whether they would shecht (kill) an animal so that it could be eaten as a kosher animal, I believe they would tell me they would not. Were I to ask them why – they would probably tell me that they had not studied the laws in the Shulchan Aruch – and so they don’t even know how to do it – even if they wanted to! Yet for some reason – without so much as glancing at the intensive laws detailed about charity – they are already the finest of Halachic masters – ruling that clearly – one does not give charity to a beggar. Rather – the beggar must go out and work!

The root for all Jewish law is found initially and most importantly in the Chumash itself. Listen to what the Torah says to us:

“When there will be a very poor person (evyon) from one of your brothers (a fellow Jew) in one of the gates in your Land that Hashem your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and do not close your fist from your poor brother.

“You shall surely open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever he is lacking. Be careful lest there be a lawless thing in your heart… and you look malevolently upon your destitute brother and you not give him, and he shall call against you to God and it will be a sin upon you. You shall surely give him, and may your heart feel bad – for it is because of this that God, your God will bless you in all your deeds and in all your undertaking. For destitute people will never cease within the Land; therefore I am commanding you saying – you shall surely open your hand to your poor brother and to the very poor who is in your Land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

Nothing could be clearer!

Rashi

Rashi adds the following remarks (questions asked by myself):

Why does the verse teach to help the poor in your gates? This is because the poor of your city precede the poor of other cities.

Do not harden your heart: There is a type of person who becomes distressed considering whether he should give or he shouldn’t give. Therefore the Torah teaches, do not harden (your heart). Then there is another type of person who is ready to give, and then he holds his hand tight (he somehow cannot let go of his money after all!) Therefore the Torah teaches – do not tighten (your hand).

Why does the Torah state “a very poor person (evyon) from one of your brothers”? To teach that if you do not give him, in the end you will be the brother of the poor person (i.e. you yourself will be just as poor as he is).

The Torah uses a double language of giving – translated loosely as “you shall surely open your hand” (patoach tiftach – open – you shall open). Why does the Torah use this double language? To teach that you should give even many times (even to the same person).

Why does the Torah use the language of lending – instead of outright giving? Rashi teaches that the Torah is teaching us this: If he does not want a gift, then give it to him as a loan. (Really, one should give it as an outright gift. If, however, the person feels he cannot take such a gift, then give it to him as a loan).

What does the Torah mean when it says to give the poor man his requirements? To teach that one is not obligated to make the other wealthy… (just give him what he needs)…

(However…) The Torah also teaches the expression, give him his requirements that he is lacking. Why does the Torah add these words? This is to teach that one should give him even a horse to ride upon or a servant to run in front of him (if this is what he has been used to).

Why does the Torah teach that one should give this “(you shall surely open your hand) to him” (lo in Hebrew)? To teach that this is a wife, as the verse teaches, “And I shall make for him (lo) a wife” (Genesis 2:18). One should do everything one can to find a marriage partner for someone in need! Indeed, the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch go to great lengths to teach about the Mitzvah of marrying someone struggling both with finding a match and with setting up their homes with the things they will need!

It is clear. Every Jew has a responsibility to assist their fellow Jew in any way they can to help them in whatever it is that they need. Even things that we might not agree with can become necessities for those in need of them. While we might not be thirsty – the other may require water. While we may be warm – the other may require a blanket. We must learn to internalise these powerful concepts – this powerful Mitzvah.

The world is created on kindness (Psalms 89:3). The world runs on kindness. Everything we have – comes from God. If we have more – we must do what we can to make sure that the other who may lack – can have whatever it is that they need in life too. That is our Mitzvah – just like Tefillin, like Kashrut and Shabbat. Just like any other Mitzvah. It is no less. Perhaps it is more…

Sir Moses Montifoire was once asked how much he was worth. This is what he answered.

Let us learn what it is to be compassionate. Let us learn to strive to become of those who love to give, and who love to see others giving to.

Let us never be ashamed when we see another in need. Let us do whatever we can to help them live too… just like us.

Let us remember – our true wealth – what we are worth – is not how much we have, but rather, it is how much we give.

Shabbat Shalom

Eliyahu

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