Parashat Re’eh 5780
The pandemic is having devastating global impact on people’s livelihoods as well as health, and both aspects of the crisis are life-threatening. Israel finds itself struggling to balance the need to restrict social interaction to limit contagion with the need to allow people to safely interact to maintain a healthy economy, and so far the right mix has eluded us, and deaths, illness and unemployment continue to rise. It doesn’t help when, in the midst of it all, stubbornly reckless and irresponsible people, including some rabbinic leaders, insist on partying unprotected in large numbers, crowded together, for misguided sacred or secular purposes, while people are dying and suffering.
This week’s parashah includes one the most important extended discussions of the mitzvah of tzedakah, to provide support for those in economic distress. Rabbi Yosef Messing notes that one of the guiding principles of this mitzvah is the verse from Tehillim (41:2):
אשרי משכיל אל דל ביום רעה ימלטהו יקוק:
Fortunate is the one who insightfully attends to the poor, in the day of evil HaShem will deliver him.
He comments: “for most mitzvot wholesome simplicity is what is sought, except for the mitzvah of Tzedakah, for which enlightened insight is sought, to know how to give tzedakah (Arono shel Yosef)”.
In this vein, Maimonides, famously, provides a hierarchy of eight levels of giving tzedakah. The lower seven are ranked according to the degree they minimize embarrassment for the person receiving help. The highest level is:
רמב”ם הלכות מתנות עניים פרק י הלכה ז
זה המחזיק ביד ישראל שמך ונותן לו מתנה או הלואה או עושה עמו שותפות או ממציא לו מלאכה כדי לחזק את ידו עד שלא יצטרך לבריות לשאול, ועל זה נאמר והחזקת בו גר ותושב וחי עמך כלומר החזק בו עד שלא יפול ויצטרך.
The person who strengthens the hand of the Israelite who has become impoverished, and gives him a gift or loan or enters into partnership with him or gives him work to strengthen his hand until he does not need to ask for help from people. On this it is said “and you shall strengthen the stranger and the sojourner and he shall live with you (Lev. 25:35),” that is to say, strengthen him until he doesn’t fall into need. (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:7)
The highest form of tzedakah is not to give a handout, but to empower the struggling person to get back on his or her feet by getting back to work and earning their own living. Rebbe Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudilkov, grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, in Degel Machaneh Efraim (Parashat Beshallach), gets to the core of this approach:
דגל מחנה אפרים שמות פרשת בשלח
על פסוק (תהלים מ”א, ב’) אשרי משכיל אל דל דלכאורה היה צריך לומר חונן אל דל ולא לשון משכיל, אבל האמת הוא דידוע אין עני אלא מדעת (נדרים מ”א א) וזה נמשך מזה מי שהוא עני בדעת הוא עני בגשמיות גם כן וההיפוך בהיפוך, ואף שלכאורה חוש הראיות מכחיש זה אך בודאי יש דברים בגו ולא ניתן להעלות על הכתב ונמצא עיקר הצדקה וחנינה לדל הוא כשמרחם עליו להשכילו דעת ויהיה עשיר בדעת ממילא יסתלק ממנו גם עניות גשמיות והיינו שממשיך שכל ודעת לידע חסרונותיו וירגיש גדול עזבם ואז ממילא יהיה עשיר בגשמיות גם כן, וזה אשרי משכיל אל דל היינו שרואה ויודע איך להמשיך שכל אל דל ובזה יבוטל ממנו העניות לגמרי בגשמיות ורוחניות
On the verse “fortunate is the one who insightfully attends to the poor,” it would seem it should have said “who is gracious to the poor,” not insightful. But the truth is, it is known that “there is no poverty unless there is lack of knowledge (Gemara Nedarim 41b),” one derives from the other. One who is poor in knowledge is poor in materiality and the opposite is the opposite. And even though, apparently, what we observe refutes this, nonetheless there are inner issues that can’t be fully expressed in writing. So it turns out that the essence of tzedakah and generosity to a poor person is when one has compassion for him to enlighten him with knowledge. When he is rich in knowledge, from this material poverty will also depart from him. To do this, one should draw to the person insight and knowledge and help him recognize what he is lacking and feel the significance of what he is missing, and then he will become rich in materiality as well. This is “fortunate is the one who insightfully attends to the poor,” that is, who sees and knows how to bring enlightenment to the poor person and in this way nullifies poverty from him entirely, materially and spiritually…
Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Efraim acknowledges that the association of poverty and lack of knowledge may be an overgeneralization. But he indicates that the causes of poverty may include a lack of awareness such that we don’t respond properly and effectively to the opportunities and threats around us. Had we really, really understood the threat of a global pandemic, wouldn’t we have taken proper precautions to protect against it? If stubbornly reckless and irresponsible leaders and followers really, really understood medical science and the harm and suffering that this pandemic is causing, would they continue their foolish behavior? There was, and remains, a lack of real knowledge at the heart of this crisis. The suggestion of the Degel Machaneh Efraim is sound: that the most effective way to help someone out of poverty is to be alert and attentive to understand their problems and empower them through training and education that addresses their needs and helps them get themselves on a solid financial and spiritual footing.
The most effective approach to tzedakah begins with sensitive awareness of the real needs of the other and to feel our deep connectedness and responsibility for each other, as it says in our parashah:
ח) כי פתח תפתח את ידך לו והעבט תעביטנו די מחסרו אשר יחסר לו:
Open, really open your hand and surely lend him sufficient for his need, for that which he lacks (Dt. 15:8)
We need to have a clear understanding of the needs of our neighbor. Contemplative discipline can be helpful in this. In our Tal Orot meditation sessions we emphasize that meditation is not about self-absorption. It’s about developing and expanding consciousness to be fully awake and critically aware of all that is happening around us and well as in us. Critical awareness includes filtering out assumptions and projections to accurately perceive and identify need and understand the other person’s situation in depth. With a good sense of what is needed, effective information, knowledge, training, education can help provide the tools to fix a difficult situation, on the personal and the communal levels. And with real understanding we will realize that we are all together in this, and in truth we are all giving and receiving tzedakah from each other all the time — this is what the cosmic economy really is, a system of mutual tzedakah, as it says in our parashah:
י) נתון תתן לו ולא ירע לבבך בתתך לו כי בגלל הדבר הזה יברכך יקוק אלהיך בכל מעשך ובכל משלח ידך:
Give, really give him and don’t let your heart feel bad when you give to him, for because of this thing HaShem your God will bless you in all your works and in everything to which you put your hand (Dt. 15:10)
What we receive in this world, from each other and ultimately from HaShem, is all tzedakah.
With HaShem’s help may we understand the importance of masks and distancing and hygiene practices and abide by them to hold the virus at bay and protect each other until we gain the knowledge needed to find effective vaccines and therapies to overcome the pandemic. May we support each other and help each other find the training and education necessary to help get each other back to work. And may we gain wisdom to learn the lessons of this crisis – chief of which is a compassionate understanding of how deeply connected we are to each other.