Two weeks ago we read in the holiness code, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Dt. 19). What does the Torah teach us about how the Israelites are to care for those experiencing financial troubles? What is the community’s responsibility when family members or others in the community fall into hard times, risk losing their land and property, and are struggling to keep themselves and their families alive? The answers to these questions lay the foundation for ethical standards of care for those in need.
Consider the phrase, “ve-chi yamuch, “and if your brother [or sister] should be reduced to poverty”, from this week’s parasha, B’har. We are instructed that when our neighbors are in need we act not out of pity, but out of tzedek – doing what is right and just. The rich are warned not to take advantage of those who have lost their financial base. Those in need are to be treated as “resident aliens.” They are not to be charged interest on loans or food. And, under no circumstances, are they to be treated as slaves. If they work as hired laborers, they must be freed in the Jubilee year.
Rabbi Assi (3rd century) teaches that the mitzvah of tzedakah “is more important that all the other commandments put together (Baba Batra 9a). We are also taught, “If you wish to raise a person from poverty and trouble, do not think it is enough to stand above and reach a helping hand down to him. You must go where the person is…Then take hold of him with strong hands and pull until both of you rise to the light” (Solomon ben Meir ha-Levi of Karlin,18th century). Rashi teaches, “Don’t let those in need fall and become impoverished so that it will be hard for them to recover. Instead, strengthen them the moment their strength and fortune fail.”
This Shabbat and always, may you and your family be blessed with all you need. And, when others are in need, may you be blessed with the spirit of generosity.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
Shabbat Behar 5776