“Charity! The Investment with the Greatest Return”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, Parashat Re’eh, is a truly edifying portion, and is filled with many interesting themes, including prohibited worship, Jewish dietary laws, false prophets, religious seducers, laws of holiness, and the fundamentals of Jewish holidays. The opening verse of this week’s parasha, Deuteronomy 11, verse 26, sums up G-d’s message to the Jewish people, “Reh’ay a’nochi no’ten lif’nay’chem ha’yom, bra’cha uk’lah’lah,” Behold I set before you this day, blessing and curse. The source of all blessing is to follow G-d’s law.

Much of the central part of this week’s parasha deals with the question of poverty, how to deal with the poor, who are an essential part of the community. In Deuteronomy 15:7, the Torah says: “Key yee’yeh v’cha ev’yon may’achad a’checha, b’achad sh’ah’recha b’ar’tzeh’cha asher Hashem e’lo’keh’cha no’ten lach,” If there be among you a poor person, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in your land which the Lord thy G-d gives thee, “Lo ta’a’metz et l’vav’cha, v’lo tik’potz et yad’cha may’ah’chee’cha ha’ev’yon,” Thou shall not harden thy heart nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother. Verse 8: “Kee fa’to’ach tif’tach yad’cha lo,” Thou shall surely open thy hand wide to him, “v’ha’a’vet ta’ah’vee’tenu day mach’saro asher yech’sar lo.” You shall certainly lend him that which is sufficient for his needs.

The Torah is very big on tzedakah, charity, a word which comes from the root of the Hebrew word Zedek-“righteousness.” The Torah assumes that a generous person is not doing a kindness to the poor person, but rather the poor person is doing a kindness to the donor. In fact, those who give in Jewish tradition are not benefactors, but rather recipients. Since everything belongs to G-d, G-d has the right to tell us how to use His wherewithal. So dire is this responsibility that the Torah tells us in Exodus 22:21-23 that if we oppress the widow or the orphan, G-d will hear their cry and be angry, and we will suffer a fate similar to the widows and orphans.

The Torah expects the Jew to respond to the needs of the poor with alacrity. The Talmud, in Ta’anit 21a, recalls the story of Nachum Eish Gamzu, who was blind in both eyes, had lost both his hands and his feet, and his entire body was covered with boils. His students asked him, “How could it be that such a righteous person as you suffers so?” “I brought it upon myself,” he explained. Once, while traveling on the road to his father-in-law’s house with a large caravan of three donkeys laden with all sorts of wonderful foods and appetizers, a poor person came, stood on the road, and said, “My master, give me something.” “I responded,” said Nachum Eish Gamzu, “Wait a moment until I unload the donkey.” Before Nachum even unloaded the donkey, the man expired. Nachum fell down on his face and prayed. “May my eyes that had no compassion on your eyes, be blinded. May my hands that had no mercy on your hands, and my feet that had no compassion on your feet, let them loose their cunning.” Nachum still was not satisfied until he said, “Let all my body be covered with boils.”

This is the implication of the very beautiful and subtle verse that Jews read every Friday night in the Ode to the Woman of Valor, Ayshet Chayil, from Proverbs 31:20: “Kah’pah par’sah l’ah’nee, v’yah’deh’hah shil’cha la’ev’yon.” The Woman of Valor opens her palm to the poor and sends forth her hand to the needy. When a poor person approaches the Woman of Valor, she opens her pocket and her pocketbook. But when she beholds a needy person, one who is languishing, she does not wait, she extends her hand.

As we have already noted, our Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:8, says: “v’ha’a’vet ta’a’vee’tenu day mach’saro asher yech’sar lo,” Be sure to give the poor person sufficiently, according to his or her needs. The Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, says that Hillel the Elder felt particularly obliged to care for a wealthy person who had lost his fortune and was now poor. In order to fulfill the biblical obligation of caring for his brother “according to his need,” he made sure that the former wealthy person was properly cared for, even to the extent that he had a horse to ride and a servant to run before him. Once when Hillel could not find a servant, Hillel the Elder himself ran before the poor man for three miles.

Our Torah has a highly developed sense of propriety, and a heightened sensitivity necessary for the proper distribution of charitable funds. Deuteronomy 15:10 says: “Na’ton tee’ten lo,” Thou shall surely give the poor person. Rashi, the commentator on the Bible, emphasizes the word “lo”– to him, and interprets “Bey’no u’veynecha,” charity must be given privately and sensitively in order not to embarrass the recipient.

The Mishnah in Shekalim, Chapter 5, mishnah 4, reports that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had two offices. One was known as “Lish’kat kay’lim,” the office of utensils, and the other was known as “Lish’kat cha’sha’in,” the secret office. The office of utensils was used for people to dedicate their used utensils, and once a month the monies would be used for repair of the Temple. The secret office was a place where G-d-fearing people who wanted to give charity secretly would make their deposits, and the poor people who were embarrassed to take from public funds would enter and discreetly remove money necessary for their needs.

Similarly, the Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, tells the story of Mar Uk’ba who used to throw four coins each day into the living space of a poor person who lived nearby. Once, the poor person decided to find out who was his generous benefactor. In order to do so, he hid behind the door. Once he heard the money being left, he flung open the door and ran after his anonymous benefactor. When Mar Uk’ba and his wife saw the poor man coming after them, they ran to hide and jumped into an oven whose coals had recently been removed and, in the process, burned their feet. The Talmud explains why they went to such an extreme by citing the dictum, “It is preferable to cast oneself into a fiery furnace, than embarrass a person publicly.”

One of the many great contributions of Maimonides, the Spanish philosopher and halachist, 1135-1204, was his listing of the sequential degrees of charity in his Code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah, in the 10th chapter of the section dealing with gifts to the poor. The lowest level of giving, says Maimonides, is to give to the poor begrudgingly. The second level is to give insufficiently to the needy, but at least pleasantly. The third level is to give to the needy when they request. The fourth level is to voluntarily give to the needy before they ask. The fifth level is when the donor is aware of the recipient, but the recipient, the poor person, is unaware of the donor. The sixth level the recipient, the poor person, is aware of the donor, but the donor is unaware of the recipient. The seventh level neither the donor nor the recipient is aware of each other’s identity. The highest level, says Maimonides, is to give a gift or loan or establish a business partnership with the poor person so that the poor will no longer be in need of charity.

Once again, the Torah revolutionizes our understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and morality. Now it is our duty to convey these precepts to the world.

May you be blessed.