by Rebbetzin Malkah
(this commentary was written in response to hurricane Katrina.)
As we continue through Devarim, we see the bulk of the commandments are revisited again in this week's Parashat R'eh. The parasha begins by presenting the choice to follow the mitzvot and receive blessing. If we should choose not to, we are left open to the negative consequences. Given that the concept of blessing is presented to us first, there is no mistaking the way in which Hashem wishes us to be motivated. The Children of Yisrael have the incredible option to "have it all" and be the winners of a physically and spiritually rich land - all by simply adhering to the mitzvot laid out by Moshe.
The concept of Hashem wanting to bless us is vital for understanding this week's portion; for in that holy desire to bless and bestow goodness upon us, He allows us to play a role in contributing to the eternal machine of blessing through acts of kindness and righteousness - all for the sake of His name. While this parasha reviews many mitzvot, the particular mitzvah of tzedakah finds focus for us in light of the natural disaster that has befallen our country this week. Therefore, it is important to understand on a deeper level how it is we are to observe this very important decree and the redemptive spirit of this powerful mitzvah.
In Devarim 15:7, it begins with "be warm-hearted and openhanded to our brethren." From this, our people have had a longstanding tradition and connection in the giving of tzedakah. The Torah admonishes us to give whatever is lacking to the person in need and give wholeheartedly. We may not harden our hearts toward any in need or close our hand for it says there are "destitute among you" and that "the destitute will not cease." It is apparent that this commandment to be concerned with your neighbor's needs was to be an institution for all time and a proof of Hashem's manifestation amongst His people and among all peoples.First, being "warmhearted and openhanded" might seem to be fairly easy obligations to fulfill. We see someone in need, have compassion, open our purse, and then we move on. However, many more times than not, we witness those in need and simply "feel badly" regarding their situation. Opening one's purse to help those is need is not the next obvious course of action for most people. As we watch the coverage of the devastation this week on our television screens, we are forced to view and imagine the horror these people must endure daily with the destruction, trauma, grief and a sense of the unknown that is all around them. Indeed, our first instinct in any "need" situation should be to feel for that person or group of people. For us to be defined as a people of Hashem and a witness of G-d in this world, we need to display compassion and mercy. That requires feeling the very need that is in the person's life before you - whether literally before you, on television, on a slide show, etc. This gives a fuller understanding of what is meant by "warmhearted."
As mentioned above, many people will see the tremendous need that is before the country and sympathize with those in the region of the devastation. But how many will act and be "openhanded", the second active part of the commandment? How many will be financially inclined to give? How many will sit in a stunned or paralyzed state of feeling sorrow for the victims and yet do nothing constructive with that emotion? To use a game show analogy, it is not enough to know the answer on any particular game show. It is in hitting the answer button in time and answering correctly that increases the chances of winning. In the same token, it is not enough to know that someone is in need and to feel badly; we are required to act. Through action, we bring the very righteousness of Hashem into the world and allow His creatures to witness us operating according to the very image in which we were made - in the image of G-d Himself. Thus, we are fulfilling the divine intention with respect to this mitzvah in the manner which most truly represents G-d and His compassion for us.Another aspect of tzedakah is that it, in and of itself, has a redemptive impact on all humanity. The Hebrew root of the word tzedakah is Tsadee, Dalet and Qoof, meaning righteousness or justice. When we give tzedakah, we are doing our part to restore justice and righteousness in the world by this simple act of giving, over and over again.
Without this carefully designed system of righteousness built into the world, we become hard-hearted and callous to our neighbor's poverty. As we witness the aftermath in the wake of this week's storm, person after person, and community after community must carry out the arduous task of coping with all that surrounds them. But even for those who are not in the affected areas, the concept of such ruin and suffering causes sadness and distress. How can any one of us feel comfortable as we rest in our warm, dry homes and eat a hot meal? How can we feel happiness when people have no homes to live in, no food to eat, no family to return to? In Devarim 15:11 it clearly states that the "destitute people will not cease to exist."Clearly then, at any time in history, how are we supposed to function and manage to live happy, fruitful lives when there are those around us who are less fortunate? While many people throughout history have sought answers to this, we merely need to return to the mitzvah of tzedakah in the Torah and see its redemptive power. The emotions that someone in desperate need goes through on a daily basis can range from suffering, fear, hopelessness, lack of peace, to a complete lack of faith. When that person in need suddenly becomes a recipient of tzedakah, many of those emotions can dissipate, even if just for a while, and provide a temporary redemption for that individual. The suffering may seem more bearable, faith in humanity and in a loving Creator might return. These natural side-effects are built into the process and can literally change a life. But there is something greater than all of this - we have to ability to evoke this redemption again and again as we are not free to ever cease from performing this mitzvah. This is not only redemptive for the recipient, but also for those who give; it heals a small part of that hurting within ourselves when we see the lack in the lives of others. Does this mean that the way to assuage our sadness in seeing misfortune in the lives of others is write a check and be free? The Torah doesn't let us off that easily. However, it does give us some release of burden by allowing us to feel as if we can be participants in bringing about righteousness on a continual basis. By prescribing for us to give repeatedly, we are freed from being separate from the situation and the guilt of our good fortune is removed from us.
While there are different levels of giving tzedakah, there are mutual blessings for both the recipient and for the one giving tzedakah. Moshe declares that Hashem will bless "you in your deeds and in your every undertaking." Our goal, however, should ultimately be to give without receiving as we learn from Pirkei Avot,
When Messiah Yeshua mentions that we should not be showy in our giving, it is to remind us that it is not for us to receive our reward on earth; this alludes to the redemptive power which tzedakah holds for the moment as well as into the Olam Haba. A later famous rabbinic dictum, "mitokh shelo lishmah ba'lishmah", goes even further to say that observing the mitzvot, even for some ulterior motive, will eventually lead to observing the mitzvot for their own sake. (Talmud Pesachim 50b) One who is prompted to give tzedakah in the hopes of someday miraculously being saved from a tragedy may learn to give tzedakah and not expect a reward. Whether you give in the spirit of the first method or the latter, the main point lies in the restorative quality found in the matter of giving all tzedakah. This theme progresses as the parasha deals with the concept of a Jewish bondsman, his freedom and his future. The mitzvah of tzedakah has a transcendent quality that is not only very empowering, but life changing and elevating for both parties involved.
In short, much of this parasha can be summed up with a quote from Shimon the Righteous, one of the last surviving members of the Great Assembly: "The world stands on three things: the Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness." Hashem commands us to see the blessing and the curse - He is explicit about the choice to follow the Torah, to serve only Him, and to participate in gemilut chasadim - acts of kindness in the community. As we continue through our week and become ever more aware of the growing needs within our midst, whether they are the homeless in our own cities, the newly homeless of the nation, or the impoverished abroad, may we not forget that the mitzvah of tzedakah is one in which we should be always mindful of on a daily basis - to ease the burdens of those in need, and to bring about sparks of justice to a world which is looking for the final redemption.