2001This week's Parsha, Parshat Re'eh, continues Moses' farewell speech to the Children of Israel. In it, Moses anticipates their entry into the Land of Israel and the covenantal relationship upon which their success in the Land depends. Moses discusses the implications of their covenant with God and pays special attention the societal obligations that it imparts to them - and to us.
In that context we read (Deuteronomy, Chapter 15, Verses 7-8): "If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and provide him that which is sufficient for all he is lacking."
Your Bible Navigator
1. How do we measure the "lacking" for which we are obligated to provide?
2. What, if any, are the limits on our obligation?
3. Are there circumstances under which we can refuse to help?
4. Exactly what loss are we making up for?
5. What is the nature of the obligation of Tzedakah as understood by these passages?
Talmud, Tractate Ketuboth, 67b
The rabbis taught: "That which is sufficient..." - You are commanded to provide a pauper with sustenance [i.e. his basic needs] but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.
"for all he is lacking" - Even if he is lacking a horse to ride upon and a servant to run before him, you must provide these for him. It is said that Hillel the Elder regularly took a horse and a servant for a pauper who was of aristocratic parentage. Once, when he could not find a servant [available] to run before the pauper, Hillel himself ran before him for three millin [a distance of about 2 miles].
The rabbis taught: If an orphan boy and an orphan girl come before the administrators of a charity fund to be supported, we first provide for the girl and then we provide for the boy. For it is common for a man to go begging from door to door but not for a woman [who would therefore be more embarrassed].
The rabbis taught: When an orphan boy comes for charity funds in order to get married, we rent a house for him, supply him with a bed and all the furnishings required for his use, and only then do we marry off a wife to him, for it says, "You must open your hand and provide him that which is sufficient for all he is lacking."
Your Talmud Navigator
1. What is the difference between "providing for that which is lacking" (for which we are obligated), and "making him wealthy" (for which we are not obligated)?
2. In the anecdote regarding Hillel the Elder, what is the significance of the information that the pauper involved was of aristocratic parentage? Would it have made a difference had he been a pauper the son of paupers? Why?
3. Based on the last excerpt quoted from the Talmud, whose responsibility is it to ascertain "that which is lacking?" On what basis is that determination made?
4. What reason does the Talmud give for the requirement that the Fund administrators help the pauper girl before the pauper boy? How might the principle involved deepen our understanding of the rest of this Talmudic passage?
Maimonides, Laws of Gifts To the Poor:
A pauper who owns a home and household utensils, even utensils of gold and silver, is not obliged to sell his home and utensils [in order to receive Tzedakah]. It is forbidden to pressure a pauper or to raise one's voice at him because his heart will break. One who gives less than a Prutah is not credited with having given anything. One who gives Tzedakah rudely loses all merit even if one gave one-thousand gold pieces.
One might conclude that "that which is lacking" is not to be measured in material terms at all. Sustaining a pauper is important as a means of restoring that which is really lacking: his (or her) dignity and sense of self-worth. Deprived of possessions, a person experiences a loss of dignity and a diminution of self; restored to them, his dignity is returned. As understood by Maimonides and by the rabbis of the Talmud, our parsha tells us to recognize the loss of dignity and sense of self that accompanies material depravation and commands us to act and to restore "that is lacking." The Jewish society envisioned by the Torah is a society in which all its inhabitants are allowed lives of dignity and value and in which each member cares for the dignity of all others.
Prepared by Rabbi Howard Alpert, Executive Director, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.