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Thursday
Aug012013

THE BROTHER OF A POOR MAN

Tz’daka is one of Judaism’s very important Mitzvos. In some ways, it is the most important of them all. The Talmud states that Tz’daka alone is equal to all the other Mitzvos. Tz’daka is singularly important because it hastens the Redemption. We are taught that Israel will not be redeemed except through tz’daka.

THE MOST IMPORTANT MITZVAH

These and other statements about tz’daka in the Talmud demonstrate its centrality in Jewish life.

This unique Mitzvah is also discussed in several places in the Torah. One of them is in this week’s parsha:

“If there will be a destitute person—from among one of your brothers or from one in your town—in the Land that G-d, your G-d, is giving you, you must not harden your heart or shut your hand from your destitute brother. Rather, you must repeatedly open your hand to him and give him (charity or) give him a loan—sufficient to fulfill his requirements that he is lacking.”

RASHI’S ENIGMATIC COMMENT

Rashi interprets the words “from your destitute brother” as a warning of what will happen if you do not give tz’daka:

“If you don’t give it (tz’daka) to him, your end will be that you will be a brother of a destitute person.”

Rashi, presumably, was troubled by the apparently superfluous nature of the words “from your destitute brother.” The verse could have simply stated: “You must not harden your heart or shut your hand.” It would have been understood literally, as referring to a penniless person.

Rashi, therefore, understands these words as foretelling the punishment for not giving tz’daka: you will become the brother of a destitute person.

Rashi’s comment, however, begs the obvious question: Why would the punishment for not helping the poor be that one becomes the brother of a poor man? Why wouldn’t the punishment be impoverishment itself? Furthermore, this uncharitable person is already a brother of someone destitute, for that is how the Torah introduces the subject: “If there will be a destitute person—from among one of your brothers.”

SIX ANSWERS

There are at least six ways to resolve this question:

First, some commentators interpret Rashi’s words as suggesting that the tables will be turned. The punishment for not helping your brother is that he shall become rich and you will become poor and need to depend on your wealthy brother for support.

A simpler, second explanation can be that the word “brother” is meant figuratively here, as a permanent companion. In this view, Rashi actually means that just as one cannot sever biological ties with a brother, so too will the miser find himself in constant companionship with poverty as retribution for the lack of compassion for his own brother. Poverty will be a permanent fixture of his life.

Third, the miser’s punishment is that everyone will know that he is a brother of a destitute person, even if he attempts to cover up his insensitivity with public philanthropy. According to Jewish law—as Rashi in an earlier comment cites—we must give precedence to our own family, community, etc., before giving to others. There are individuals who are charitable but do not give to their own flesh and blood. By contrast, they are more than willing to contribute to outside causes. There are even those who give primarily — or even exclusively — to non-Jewish causes. Their rationale may be that this form of charitable giving will reward them with more recognition and acclaim. These selective philanthropists obviously do not want people to know that they don’t give to their own. Since they are so kind to others, they think no one will suspect that they are cruel to their own flesh and blood.

The Torah therefore states that the punishment for not helping your brother is that your insensitivity to his needs will be exposed. The entire town will talk about the cruel brother who did not want to help his own kin. You will always be known as the “brother of the destitute.”

The story is told of a wealthy man who was solicited to contribute to one of the town’s charitable causes. He refused to give, using the excuse that he had a poor brother to support. A while later, that same brother came to the charity collectors and asked for their assistance. When they asked him why he needed it since he had a rich brother, he spoke the ugly truth: his brother refused to help him. The charity collectors promptly returned to the wealthy brother and demanded to know why he used his poor brother as an excuse. His reply was: “I indeed have a poor brother, and if I don’t help him, why should I contribute to your cause…”

Fourth, another understanding of Rashi’s words is that the “punishment” for not giving to your poor brother is that your brother will end up remaining indigent. Here we are dealing with someone who could help his brother but may feel that others should help instead. Whether those others are the Jewish community or the government, the Torah exhorts us to not rely on them; charity begins at home. And if you will not help your brother, you will forever bear the guilt of not supporting your brother in his destitution, because he will most likely remain destitute. In the end, you will have no choice but to help him. Why then did you not help him immediately, when you were made aware of his plight?

Fifth, a more positive “spin” can be put on the “punishment” by focusing on the definition of the word brother. As was noted above, it is not restricted to one’s biological brother but extends to every member of the Jewish people. There are some people who do not want to help their fellow Jew because they do not recognize the kinship that exists between all of the Jewish people. We are all brothers and sisters. There is an essential unity that binds us together regardless of our station in life or level of Jewish observance.

The Torah therefore promises that ultimately you will become the brother of that destitute person; you will eventually recognize that we are all brothers and sisters and you will certainly help him.

Tragically, history has demonstrated that, all too often, Jews discover their commonality, shared history, destiny and indeed their shared soul, in times of tragedy or crisis. In the past, when we experienced poverty and suffering it brought us closer; we recognized our inherent unity. Now, when we prosper there is a lamentable tendency to forget that we all are truly one.

Thus, the Torah’s question: why wait until you suffer the indignity of poverty to appreciate that you are brothers? Recognize this reality now and you will help usher in the age when the poor shall be no more.

MOSHIACH: THE DESTITUTE?

There is a sixth way of understanding Rashi’s comment. According to the classic work Or HaChayim, the destitute person is an allegory for Moshiach. The Hebrew word for destitute is evyon, which means “one who desires everything.” Moshiach harbors the passionate desire to redeem the Jewish people. He cannot tolerate the lack of Redemption. He feels impoverished because he has been unable to redeem the Jewish people.

From this perspective, we can reinterpret the commandment to give tz’daka to the destitute as an obligation to assist Moshiach in realizing his goal of redeeming the Jewish people.

We are thus commanded to “not harden your heart or shut your hand from your destitute brother.” This can be understood to mean that we should not harden our hearts and cling to an exile mindset where we remain indifferent to Moshiach’s heartfelt desire to bring Redemption to the world. We too must cry out sincerely and passionately, “Ad Masai-How much longer” do we have to remain in exile?

Pleading for our exile to end, no matter how fervently, will not suffice. We also have to keep our hands open, i.e. do one more Mitzvah that will tip the scales in favor of Redemption.

The Torah adds “from your destitute brother” to indicate, as Rashi says, that if we don’t give him tz’daka we will ultimately become a brother to the destitute person.

In the context of Or HaChayim’s interpretation of the destitute person as Moshiach, we can understand this phrase to mean that even if we fail to do our part in sharing Moshiach’s passion, Moshiach will still redeem us. In the end, we will all become his brother and join him in the unfolding of the Redemption. The profound question is: will we grasp the opportunity to have a positive role in the process or simply stand back and let Moshiach accomplish everything without us?

In the Rebbe’s historic talk of the 28th of Nissan 5751, he told us that he had done all he could do himself to bring Moshiach, and now it was up to us to finish this greatest of tasks. We should open our hearts (by crying out “Ad Masai” with sincerity) and open our hands, by tenaciously searching for ways to bring Redemption, with particular emphasis on the literal Mitzvah of Tz’daka. Don’t wait until later to join Moshiach, become his brother now!

 

 

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