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Parshios Behar & Bechukosai

Respect for the Poor

If your brother becomes poor and loses the ability to support himself, then you must help him, whether he is a proselyte, or a foreigner, so that he may live amongst you . . . (Vayikra 21:1)

Poverty is everywhere. I remember the first time I saw someone begging for money in the street and how taken aback I was. I was traveling through Europe at the time, and I was amazed how easily the beggars seemed to fit into the landscape. This was especially so since where I grew up in Toronto, in the suburbs, there were no beggars.

And, when I ventured downtown in Toronto, it was always to areas where the poor did not dare go and ask for money. Unlike Europe, it was just too much of an affront to beg for money for necessities from people who shopped in fancy malls for extras.

This was all before I became an Orthodox Jew. Until that wondrous time, I was totally unaware of the laws concerning tzedakah, or charity, as it was known in my early days. I was not yet of the opinion that everything I had been blessed with really belonged to God, and that I had a moral obligation to share my bounty with the less fortunate. If and when I did, it was because some feeling of guilt pushed me to part with my precious money.

Then, I became religious (over the course of a year), and I learned differently. I learned how easy it is to be on the other side of the stick, so-to-speak, and how we can’t take credit for our successes, only be grateful for them. Most importantly, I learned the difference between charity and tzedakah.

Charity, simply put, is giving to others simply because they asked. A person with a charitable nature is one who gives freely of his own money or belongings to others, regardless of how much the other person deserves what he is getting. And, usually, there is no ulterior motive other than to help out another person who is in need. If someone gives for some kind of personal gain, it is hard to call such a person charitable.

Tzedakah is all of that, with one exception. As the word implies, with tzedakah, the giving has little to do with what the person feels about being charitable and everything to do with being righteous. You give to others in need because it is the moral thing to do, because it is what God wants you to do, as expressed in the halachah.

This results in a difference from charity that is not immediately evident, but implied. If helping a person out in need is the moral thing to do, then helping the person out in need is not appropriate if it is not the moral thing to do, even though it hurts you to close your hand. Everything about the person can scream out, “Give to me something!” However, if giving to them will have the end result of taking something positive away from them, then giving to them is not only not a mitzvah, it is even the wrong thing to do.

For example, human beings were created in the image of God, and are only fulfilled when they live up to that image. Dignity is crucial, as is a certain amount of personal independence, and nothing provides both better than by being a responsible person. Everyone needs others and has moments of dependency, but anyone who chooses that path as a way of life denies their Godly aspect.

This is why the greatest act of charity is not simply giving money to a stranger. It is to help someone get on their feet, to do whatever you can, in whatever small or large way, to point them in a direction of self-sufficiency. You’re not simply giving them a job, but self-dignity, the most important human asset.

Hence, the Torah refers to such giving as gemillas-chassadim, which usually translates as acts of loving kindness. However, the first word comes from a word that is derived from the same word that either refers to a camel (gamal), or the weaning of a child from its mother’s milk. The former can travel for days in the desert without the need to drink, and the latter is being put on a path to independence. That is the ideal chesed: independence.

As a result, though charity usually means to give something, tzedakah says that sometimes giving is really taking. If a person is pursuing a life of charity because he refuses to take responsibility for his life, then the Godly thing to do would be to not give him a hand-out, in order to force him to take responsibility for his life.

Of course, this is hard to know about strangers, especially when they show up at your door for the first time. There is no question that today there are a lot of frauds, making it very difficult for real poor people, but it so hard to tell those who truly need tzedakah from those who do not; the latter really act the part, and givers are more concerned about sending the person on his or her way than prolonging the episode with a lengthy investigation.

As a result, many cities today have implemented a policy that requires anyone collecting money to first meet with a local representative, who does a relatively thorough background check on the collector. Community members are then advised that they should not give to anyone unless the person shows up bearing the proper paper, thus discouraging people from acting fraudulently. It’s not 100 percent foolproof, but it certainly improves the situation.

However, the Talmud provides an interesting insight into the entire giver-receiver relationship that reveals that it is really a two-way street when it comes to giving tzedakah, as it says:

Rebi Yitzchak further said: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘He that follows after righteousness and mercy finds life, righteousness and honor?’ (Mishlei 21:21)? Because a man has followed after righteousness, shall he find righteousness? The purpose of the verse, however, is to teach us that if a man is anxious to give charity, The Holy One, Blessed is He, gives him money with which to give it.” Rav Nachman ben Yitzchak says:

“The Holy One, Blessed is He, sends him people who are fitting recipients of charity, so that he may be rewarded for assisting them.” Who does this exclude? Such as those mentioned in the exposition of Rabbah, when he said: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘Let them be made to stumble before You; in the time of Your anger, deal with them?’ (Yirmiyahu 18:23)? Yirmiyahu said to The Holy One, Blessed is He: ‘Master of the Universe, even when they conquer their evil inclination and seek to give charity before You, cause them to stumble through men who are not fitting recipients, so that they should receive no reward for assisting them.’ ” (Bava Basra 9b)

Though many know that it is a mitzvah to give tzedakah, they tend to focus more on the good they are doing others by giving, than the good being done for them through the receiving. Indeed, from Heaven’s point of view, the situation may the reverse of what we see, making the giver the receiver, and the receiver, the giver, spiritually-speaking.

Hence, though a collector may physically show up with the necessary paperwork in order to authenticate his right to collect, we have to show up with the proper Heavenly paperwork, so-to-speak, in order to authenticate our right to give. And THAT has less to do with how much money one has to give away than it does with how righteous a person is on a daily basis.

The Vilna Gaon mentions a similar point with respect to Eretz Yisroel. I have heard it said that, Ben Gurion, at the founding of the State, had hoped that the new Jewish homeland would transform a nation of shnorrers, the not-so-complimentary Yiddish word for those who constantly seek money from others, into a nation of financially-independent Jews.

Well, the joke was certainly on Ben Gurion, because what ensued in the end was a nation that never stopped turning to others for handouts, and which has built upon the generosity of others. The reason: Ben Gurion’s desire was based upon emotion, whereas the need for tzedakah of the Jewish homeland was a historical necessity, as it says:

It is a decree and an act of mercy that the settlement of Eretz Yisroel will be built through tzedakah. For, The Holy One, Blessed is He, wanted to give all Jews, near and far, the merit of having a portion in the building of the inheritance of God, as it says, “They gathered money from all of the Jewish people to fortify the House of God” (Divrei HaYomim 2:24:5). (Kol HaTor, Ch. 1:19)

Quick question: How many Diaspora Jews have looked at the opportunity to invest money into the fledgling Jewish State over the years as a blessing, THEIR blessing? On the other hand, how many have felt that it was merely their obligation, or were cajoled into giving by their community leaders, wondering, “When will the place finally stand on its own financial feet?”

The answer to the question has less to do with the financial success of the Jewish State than it does with the worthiness of Diaspora Jewry to participate in the building of Tzion. Eretz Yisroel will no longer need foreign money as soon as the door closes on Diaspora Jewry’s merit to financially participate in the building of the Final Redemption, either because it has already happened, or because they simply lost the merit to be involved.

This historical moment in time may already be at hand. Years ago, when the US dollar plummeted, everyone waited for the Israeli Shekel to do the same, since it had always taken its cue from the US currency. However, to the surprise of just about everyone, it didn’t, and while the US dollar slipped lower, the Israeli Shekel remained strong. And, when the Housing Market in the US fell out and sent the American economy spiraling downward, the Israeli economy held its own. For the first time, many Americans considering making aliyah had to put their dreams on hold because their American houses had become greatly undervalued while Israeli real estate soared. While, in the rest of the Western world the building industry slowed down, the big constructions cranes adorned the skyline of many cities and communities in Eretz Yisroel.

The timing is not uncanny. We are well into the tenth hour of the six millennium, well into the period called Kibbutz Golios—the ingathering of the exiles—and Techiyas HaMeisim, the resurrection of the dead, is supposed to start somewhere between 14 and 18 years, according to the Leshem and according to the Zohar. This is Zman Geulah—the time of the Final Redemption. The time of building is coming to a fast end; the time of moving in, Phase 1, may also be coming to a rather abrupt end as well.

When you think about it, it is rather obvious. Who really needs whom more? There is no question that the poor person needs money more than the giver. However, that is but a worldly matter, for what counts the most is not how much money one has, or how much financial freedom one enjoys, but how much merit we will accumulate by the time we leave this world and make our way to the World-to-Come.

That being the case, we need to do as many mitzvos in our lifetime as we possibly can. Becoming financially rich is just a means to an end, but become spiritually rich is the end unto itself. If so, then any recipient of good from us is not really taking from us, but giving to us. They don’t owe us, but we owe them.

As a writer, I usually depend upon contributions from others to help my books see the light of day. Thank God, I have been blessed over the years to connect up with generous people, who have made dedications in my books, often on several occasions.

More importantly, though, is the way they have contributed. As much as I believe in what I do, and I really do, and the importance of getting this material out there, still, asking for money from others to publish my work is still exactly that: asking for someone else’s hard-earned money. I do not look at it as if I am the one doing them the favor.

But they have. Occasionally, some of the notes I have received from contributors over the years have just about brought tears to my eyes. The respect that I have been shown, and the sense of gratitude that they have displayed towards me for allowing them to make a dedication (and even the sincere apologies they give when, for some technical reason, a transaction does not work the first time), has overwhelmed me, since I always feel the same way towards them.

This has taught me a lesson that I have tried to apply to my own giving as well. It is very common in the religious community, especially here in Israel, to have multiple causes come to your door in succession on a single night. It is also very possible that some of them are fraudulent, while others may look or act unworthy to receive a handout. Hence, it is a very easy to feel like the fortunate giver, and to look at the person on the other side of threshold as the unfortunate beggar.

To fight this yetzer hara, I decided years ago that, no matter what, I would treat each person with dignity, which, for me, meant offering them something to drink, which is often accepted. It had forced me to pause and think about the plight of the other person, because even if he really shouldn’t be out there receiving handouts, he still had to go from door-to-door, often in very warm or very cold weather.

On one occasion, after offering someone a drink, he asked me if we happened to have any crackers around, so I gave him a whole pack. He devoured them, and explained to me that he hadn’t eaten the entire day, so I got him some fruit as well.

After he ate and drank, and I gave him what is a good contribution by door-to-door standards, but a small fraction of what he really needed, he got up and thanked me, clearly from the bottom of his heart. I could tell that his gratitude had less to do with the money, and more to do with how he had been treated like a brother, and not like the poor, second-class citizen that he wasn’t. It was very gratifying for me.

However, the true gratification of such an approach to giving tzedakah did not really come until, one day, I watch my own son tend to someone who had come to the door. Tired, I just hadn’t felt like answering the door that night, so I sent my son in my place. Without him knowing, I watched with admiration when, on his own, he offered the person at the door a drink, and delivered it to him with a sense of respect, something I could hear the person appreciated.

I decided right then and there that if anything good I ever did made its way to my own children, it should be that, the middah of treating another in need with such respect. With such an attitude in life, obligations become opportunities, and one is destined to be a Ben Olam HaBah—a resident of the World-to-Come.

Chariot of the Divine Presence

Man was made b’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of God. There are many discussions as to exactly what that means and what it implies, but the bottom line is that man is capable of being Godly, and therefore, is expected to act accordingly. Learning Torah and performing mitzvos is the way that we best do this.

In other words, it is not about simply being good soldiers, because God doesn’t need soldiers. As it says in Derech Hashem, since God is good, He desires to give good, and because He is perfect, He gives the most perfect good that His handiwork can expect. That happens to be God Himself, and therefore, He created man with the ability to be like God, so man can be with God.

The problem with sin is that it is so unGodly. The most disgusting act known to man would not faze God, because, having made Creation and all of its potential, He knows how low man can sink before he even sinks there. Furthermore, knowing the future, He knows what people are going to do before they’re even capable of doing it.

Thus, it is obviously not the shock of our sins that bothers God. It is the fact that, after having been created in His image, we act more like our physical relatives lower down. In fact, the word Amalek, in Hebrew, can be read amal (Ayin-Mem-Lamed)—toil, kof (Kuf)—monkey, the work of a monkey.

In other words, Amalek attacks our Godliness, by getting us to act unGodly. Take Bilaam and Balak, for example, who the Zohar says were spiritually rooted in the source of Amalek. Hence, the letters of Amalek can be found in their names when they are combined together. The remaining letters spell Bavel, the location of the first exile the Jewish people went into, and that is no coincidence either.

As the Shem M’Shmuel points out, Bilaam’s and Balak’s attack on the Jewish people was not physical, but spiritual. They surprised the Jewish men with young, beautiful women, and reduced them to monkey’s so-to-speak, after which they easily stooped to idol worship, thus invoking Divine wrath.

How Amaleki can you get, for as the Nesivos Shalom explains, Amalek attacks two aspects of Jewish living: emunah and kedushah—faith and holiness. He does that by appealing to man’s physical nature, emphasizing it and epitomizing it to such an extent that man forgets his spiritual nature. “Look how attractive you are when you wear this!” he says to the person, while he quietly tells himself, “Look how much I have been able to degrade this person by making them dress so immodestly, and without any resistance either.”

Though Hitler, y”s, may not have been a physical descendant of Amalek, many agree that he was rooted, like Balak and Bilaam before him, in Amalek. He certainly showed signs of this when he sacrificed the war effort just to ship more Jews to the death camps.

What people fail to emphasize is the belief that drove him: Social Darwinism. He believed that men were more like animals than anything Godly, and that just as survival of the fittest rules the animal kingdom, he thought that it ought to rule the world of man as well. He argued vehemently that if we did not run our world according to this principle meant to water down the species and build in its extinction.

Though helping out a brother in need, he said, was helping out a brother indeed, it was not helping out the rest of the human race. On the contrary, it was taking from people who deserved what they had, and giving those who were unworthy, and he blamed the Jewish people for bringing such crooked thinking into the human world. Like Darwin before him, he thought that man was just the next link in the chain of monkeys.

Hence, the fight to create and maintain a belief in God, and then living a dignified life, is a blow to Amalek. As Rashi explains back in Parashas Bereishis, before Adam ate from the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Rah, there was no need for a concept such as modesty, because there was no possibility of being anything but holy.

However, once man ate from the forbidden fruit, catering more to his physical nature than his spiritual one, he came to realize the potential to abuse all of Creation, including other people. Looking at himself and Chava that way for the first time, he felt a sense of shame, and therefore, a need for modesty to maintain his sense of Godliness.

It’s like when Avraham was on his way to Egypt, and the Torah says that he finally noticed how beautiful Sarah, his wife, was. In truth, he had always noticed her beauty, but because as spiritually dignified as the two of them were, he viewed her physical beauty in spiritual terms. He wouldn’t have allowed himself to abuse her physical beauty by seeing it in hedonistic terms.

However, before going to a place where that was the only way they viewed physical beauty, he was forced to see it that way as well, to prepare the two of them for what was coming up once they arrived there. No doubt it was distasteful to the two of them, but that is the world we live in, and today, more than ever before.

For, once a person ignores their Tzelem Elokus and focuses instead only his or her physical component, he or she enters a very competitive and insecure world. If what makes a person unique is his soul, then there is no one to compete with, or anything to feel insecure about. For souls are unique, pieces of God, and as such, quite unlimited, and thus, beyond contempt.

However, not so with respect to the physical body. Unlike our souls, these bodies are quite visible, and we are hardwired to be attracted to certain aspects of them, and to reject others. God made us this way so that relationships can, and should, prosper physically as well as spiritually, and each side helps the other.

Today, the term physical abuse usually means that someone has physically suffered at the hands of someone else. However, from this perspective, it can just as easily be applied to what one does to oneself my showcasing one’s physical presence in an immodest way. And, with physical abuse, in this sense, comes spiritual abuse, and both are part of the same sin, and represent a victory for Amalek and his legions.

His legions? You mean Amalek doesn’t work alone?

Alone? Are you kidding?

Take a look at the world around you. Just look at what is being emphasized. Just pay attention to the message that is being broadcast, loudly, everywhere, and 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Extreme physical beauty. Provocativeness, to such a degree that just walking though the Duty Free Shop at the airport might be a mitzvah of yaharog v’al ya’avor—die rather than transgress.

Yes, that may sound rather extreme, but it is extreme to make an extremely important point. The expression is used primarily in halachah with respect to three cardinal sins that a Jew must rather die than transgress: Idol worship, murder, and illicit relationships, the latter even including being exposed to immodest situations, something which is just about impossible when one travels about in the secular world.

However, once-upon-a-time, there were decent boundaries when it came to what you could do in public, and what was in bad taste to do before the general public. Once, you didn’t have to be religious to be offended by immodest and provocative advertising, which is used, these days, to sell just about everything.

Today, provocative has been downgraded to avant garde, and even small children are exposed to things that even adults shouldn’t know about. It’s an Amalekian world out there, one that is seeping into the Jewish community, indeed, even into the Torah community as well. We may not lose the war in the end, but only because God will step in before that happens, and at our cost. However, we’re certainly losing a lot of battles along the way.

Thus, as the value of marketing and advertising goes up, fashion designers make killings selling clothing “to die for”, the hair industry rakes in billions in profits for what should only be soap to keep your hair clear, and Hollywood reaches new heights of financial success peddling visions and images that should make people ashamed for having paid good money to be exposed to, and Amalek laughs all the way to the bank. Is it merely coincidence, or just progress, that the Lord’s Prayer was removed from the educational system, or that the President of the United States, once a country founded on Torah values, has changed his opinion and sided with what the Torah calls one of the worst abominations of all?

This is why Sefer Vayikra ends off with a discussion about human value, which, after the blessings and curses, and all that has preceded them, might seem anti-climactic. Now it is understandable why.

For, just as the Ramban explained that Parashas Kedoshim came in the middle of the book (at not and the beginning or end of it where, at first, it seems to belong), to teach us that being holy means exercising restraint even with permissible things, the parshah of Arachin —values, teaches that holiness if really a function of self-dignity. All of the intricacies of Sefer Vayikra for the sake of making us holy became second nature, the Torah concludes, when humans have self-respect.

Not the Western version of self-respect, but the Torah’s idea of self-respect, based upon the fact that man was created in the image of God. What does that mean? What does that imply? Read the Torah, learn it well, because every part of it, every aspect of it, is just to help us better understand what in means to have been created in the image of the Creator of everything.

Externally, to the physical eye, we may just seem like a more sophisticated animal. However, on the inside, on the level of the spirit, we soar above everything else that exists, even the angels. Education is supposed to help a personal realize that. Life is supposed to be about achieving that reality to the best of one’s ability. Amalek reduces both to mechanical experiences to get the most physical pleasure from the physical world. Chinuch, or Torah Education, comes to accomplish the opposite.

That is why it is called chinuch, from the chanukah, which means dedication. True education teaches a person what is valuable in life, so that he can know to what he should dedicate himself and his energies. Since we have a body and a soul, the latter not really getting much of a say until after Bat or Bar Mitzvah, it is possible to make a mistake about what we really want out of life. Trillions of people already have over the millennia.

This is why the Torah world pays such attention to children from a very young age, training them to act nobly long before they want to. They won’t thank us for this while they’re young, but they will appreciate this much later on when they’re old enough, and hopefully mature enough, to know from whence came their propensity to sacrifice themselves for higher values.

As a Chozer B’Teshuvah, I can really appreciate this. Having grown up very Western, childhood was mostly an education that was designed to help me earn a living one day, a social life to balance out the stress of school, and a sports life to help balance out the two of them. There was almost nothing in my early years, including Cheder three times a week, for a life of Torah learning and Torah living.

One day, in my second year of being Torah observant, I walked into the Bais Midrash on a Shabbos afternoon and heard a fifteen year old learning Talmud. At that stage of the game, I was still learning how to learn Talmud, and continued to break my teeth on the language of the ideas, something the fifteen year old clearly had no trouble with, evident by the joy he exuded as he sung what he read.

At that moment, I had a brief moment of appreciation of so much of the time lost because I had been raised secular. My childhood was a fun, and therefore, happy one, but also relatively carefree. However, so much of the knowledge I needed to really appreciate my own self-worth, and the experiences necessary to integrate that knowledge, had not been part of personal experience, and so though I was seven years older than the young man learning in our Bais Midrash that day, I was light years behind him in terms of realizing my own personal potential. Ouch.

It was a good lesson, though, one that has stayed with me for some 30 years, apparently. It helped to light my fire, so-to-speak, as I decided to put more into my spiritual growth process and try to make up for at least a little of that lost time. No doubt that my previous life had given me knowledge and experience that I can use to help the Jewish cause in ways that the fifteen year old cannot. However, what I wouldn’t have given back at that time, as I listened to how easily and happily he made his way through a page of Talmud, to be able to do the same.

Why does it even make a difference? Because, the ultimate self-worth of a person is determined by how much of a vessel he can be for the light of God. The Forefathers earned the titled, “Chariot of the Divine Presence,” because everywhere they went, it was as if the Divine Presence could ride on them, because their presence made others aware of God’s Presence. They had great self worth, because they worked hard on being fitting vehicles for the light of God. We call that, in halachic language, being a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the Divine Name.

You don’t necessarily have to do something heroic or risky. You just have to exude your personal Godliness when you think, speak, or act. No one even has to be around when you do, though it certainly magnifies the effect when they are. Your life just has to be a statement that says: I was made in the image of God, and I have merited to be a vessel for the light of God.

Nothing makes our Creator happier than this. And, nothing makes us happier than knowing we have made our Creator happy. Too bad billions of people live unaware of this idea. However, the day we become real with it, and live up to title as a “light unto nations,” is the day we share this great reality with the rest of mankind, and will be cherished as a result.


Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.


 






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