“Charity! The Investment That Keeps Giving
(Revised and updated from Re’eh 5760-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, is a truly edifying Torah portion, filled with many interesting themes. Among them are: the prohibition of idolatrous worship, Jewish dietary laws, false prophets, religious seducers, laws of holiness, and the fundamentals of Jewish holidays. The opening verse of parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26, sums up the Al-mighty’s message to His Jewish people, רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה, Behold I set before you this day, blessing and curse. G-d declares that all blessing derives from following His law.

A major theme of this week’s parasha concerns the issue of poverty, how to deal with caring for the poor, who are an essential part of the community. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, the Torah declares: כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, If there be among you a poor person, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in your land which the L-rd thy G-d gives thee, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, You shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother. Deuteronomy 15:8, continues כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, You shall surely open your hand wide to him, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, You shall certainly lend him that which is sufficient for his needs.

The Torah is very big on צְדָקָה–tzedakah, charity, a word which derives from the root of the Hebrew word צֶדֶק–tzedek -“righteousness.” The Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 5:9, declares, that, contrary to popular beliefs, it’s not the generous person who does a kindness to the poor person, but rather the poor person who does kindness to the donor. In fact, in Jewish tradition, those who give are not benefactors, but rather the recipients! Since everything belongs to G-d, G-d has the right to tell those whom He has benefitted how to use His wherewithal. So critical is this responsibility, that the Torah tells us in Exodus 22:21-23, that those who oppress the widow or the orphan, G-d will hear their anguished cry and be angry, and those who are not responsive will suffer a fate similar to the widows and orphans.

The Torah expects the Jew to respond immediately to the needs of the poor without hesitation. The Talmud, in Ta’anit 21a, recalls the story of Nachum Ish 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 Ish Gamzu, “Wait a moment until I unload the donkey.” Before Nachum had a chance to do anything, the man expired. Nachum fell 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 message of the very meaningful and subtle verse that Jews read every Friday night in the Ode to the Woman of Valor, אֵשֶׁת חַיִל–Ayshet Chayil, from Proverbs 31:20: כַּפָּהּ פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי, וְיָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן, 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 truly needy person, one who is languishing, she does not wait, she extends her hand.

As already noted, our Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:8, states: וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, Be sure to give the poor person sufficiently, according to his or her needs. The Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, reports that Hillel the Elder, felt particularly obliged to care for a formerly wealthy person who had lost his fortune and was now poor. In order to fulfil the biblical obligation of caring for his brother “according to his need,” Rabbi Hillel made certain that the former wealthy person was properly cared for, even to the extent that he had a horse on which 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 to ensure for the proper distribution of charitable funds. Deuteronomy 15:10, says: נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ, You shall surely give the poor person.Rashi emphasizes the word “lo”–to him, interpreting the words בֵּינוֹ וּבֵנֶיךָ, to teach that charity must be given privately and sensitively in order not to embarrass the recipient.

The Mishnah in Shekalim 5:4, reports that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had two offices. One was known as לִשְׁכַּת הַכֵּלִים, the office of utensils, and the other was known as לִשְׁכַּת חֲשָׁאִים, the secret office. The office of utensils was used for people to dedicate their used utensils, and once a month the monies would be gathered to be used to make repairs in 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 who might be embarrassed to take from public funds, would enter and discreetly remove money necessary for their needs.

Similarly, the Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, relates 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 that they acted in such an extreme manner, in order to fulfill the dictum that, “It is preferable to cast oneself into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass a person publicly.

One of the many great contributions of Maimonides, was listing the sequential degrees of charity in his Code of Jewish Law, the Mishnah 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 upon request. The fourth level is to voluntarily give to the needy before they even 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 is that the recipient, the poor person, is aware of the donor, but the donor is unaware of the recipient. In the seventh level neither the donor nor the recipient are 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 dependent upon charity.

As is often the case, the Torah, once again, revolutionizes our understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and morality. Now it is our duty to convey these precepts to the rest of the world.

May you be blessed.