For Jews, giving to the poor is a simple matter of justice


Re'eh 11:26 -16:17

Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5

In this week's Torah portion we see what may be the Torah's answer to the inherent moral failings of both capitalism and communism and everything in between.

The Torah sets forth a social system that allows private property but insists that our private resources are not ours alone to dispose of, spend, save or invest according to our discretion or pleasure.

The Torah ordains considerable and exacting guidelines concerning our obligations to the poor. In what appears to be a contradiction in this week's portion, the Torah states on the one hand, "There shall be no poor among you" (Deuteronomy 15:4). On the other hand it states, "The poor shall never cease out of the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11). The great commentary Or Hachaim bridges this gap by explaining that if there are poor among us, it is because of us that this lamentable situation continues to exist. It is because the other man's portion is in our hands.

Along the same lines, the famous Dubno Maggid comments on Deuteronomy 15:9: "Beware lest there be an evil thought in your mind." He says this intends to refute the notion that having severely disparate classes in our society is normal and unavoidable. His view is that this is absolutely not true. G-d loves the poor and supports them through us. This is a major component of our obligation to repair our world, or tikkun olam.

It should be noted here that the Hebrew word tzedakah is generally translated as charity, a concept that suggests optional and voluntary behavior. In fact, tzedakah derives from the word tzedak, meaning justice, which is never optional.

The Talmud in Kosubos 68 tells us that "Whoever averts his eyes from tzedakah is compared to an idolater because both are referred to in the Torah as "wicked people." In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, we are clearly admonished, "Thou shalt not harden thy heart nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him."

The Alshich speaks of the logic of the mitzvah of tzedakah. He points out that in any event, at the time of your death you will have to open your hands. At that time none of your wealth can go with you. It has been said that you can't take it with you, but you can surely send it ahead of you. This, of course, refers to the good deeds, which will precede us on our final journey.

These concepts of justice and of giving are very deeply ingrained in the Jewish psyche and in the Jewish soul even within the most assimilated among us. Anyone who has ever participated in an Israel Bonds event or an appeal for tzedakah at a time of communal need can attest to this, as do the statistics on Jewish philanthropy.

Our sages suggest that if a Jew slams the door on a needy brother refusing to help him, he may indeed not be Jewish. Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsh explains that although the Jewish soul is a generous one and the Jew is by his very nature filled with compassion and pity, still the yetzer hara — evil inclination — will occasionally set up obstacles in our path.

We must be ever vigilant to avoid suppressing our natural inclination to give, to help, to share. Our wise sages were very familiar with the evil inclination and the obstacles it presents.

There is, of course, a multitude of rationalizations and excuses for declining to help the poor. The commentary Meleches Machsheves addresses the oft-cited excuse that one has poor relatives one must support. While it is true, he says, that one's relatives take precedence over other people, this does not excuse a Jew from helping others. "I gave at the office" and "my money is all tied up" both fall into the same category of cop-outs.

Our sages comment on Deuteronomy 15:10 "You shall surely give him." They warn against excuses saying a person should grow accustomed to giving time after time until it is second nature.

The Chafetz Chaim teaches us to divide our tzedakah money in such a way as to be able to give some each day as opposed to giving it all at once. This, he explains is so that the act of giving will have a repeated positive effect on our neshamah (soul) so that giving will indeed become as natural to us as breathing.

Shabbat shalom.