Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 31 August 2019 / 30 Av 5779

Parshat Re'eh

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Trademark of a Jewish Community: Charity

The wonders of Jewish charity find their source in this week’s Torah portion. The section discussing charity has a most peculiar introduction: If there will be among you a needy person… you shall not make your heart unfeeling and close your hand to your brother. We might have expected a straightforward directive, encouraging us to feel pain in our heart and open our hand, but instead we are instructed in the negative: Do not make your heart unfeeling and close your hand to your brother. The implied assumption of this expression is that the default state of a Jewish heart is feeling, and the default state of a Jewish hand is outstretched. If that Jewish hand and heart were permitted to give free rein to their natural impulses, they would do what is good. Only cold, calculating and deliberate considerations can chill these natural inclinations.

In the next verse, each verb describing a charitable act appears in double form: You shall open, open your hand, and you shall also lend, lend him sufficient for his need, what he lacks. Our Sages understand that this duplicative language is to encourage repetition of the charitable act without limit. It applies to the poor of one’s locale as well as the poor of another city. It applies to the wealthy person and to the one of lesser means.

The act of lending, our Sages explain, is a higher form of benevolence than giving charity, because the loan helps the borrower to continue working to earn his livelihood, and the receipt of the loan does not cause him humiliation. An even more exalted form of charity is investing in another’s business. This way of supporting the needy person treats him as an equal and enables him to earn his own living without the shame of receiving.

Finally, the Torah instructs that charity requires providing sufficient for [the poor man’s] needs. Although we are not commanded to make him rich, we are instructed to take into consideration his personal situation and standard of living when his fortune was better.

These commandments, together, have produced the glorious spectrum of Jewish benevolence. The duty to provide for the needs of the poor has made it necessary that the care of the poor be the concern of every Jewish community, and every member of the community. The section opens addressing the community: If there will be among you a needy person, but then speaks to the individual: You shall not make your heart unfeeling. The duty devolves both on the individual and on the community. The benevolence of individuals is particularly necessary in order to help those who have become impoverished and are ashamed of their circumstances — to give to them discreetly, or help them back on their feet. But there is charitable work that only the community can do on an organizational level.

Perhaps most revealing of the essence of Jewish charity is the word itself: tzedaka. We do not refer to aiding the poor as “benevolence” or “kindness” (chessed), but rather as tzedaka, righteousness or justice. It is a duty, not a prerogative. A Jew does not “do good” because he is compelled by an impulse of pity today. Rather, he does good in fulfillment of his noble obligation to G-d and mankind.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 15:7-8

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