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Parashat Re’eh 5778

August 8, 2018

A D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
By Rabbi Isaac Mann

For this week’s d’var Torah on parashat Re’eh, I would like to share with you some homiletic interpretations that pertain to the mitzvah of tzedakah (roughly translated as “charity”) and that express some deep insights into this mitzvah.

The Torah devotes several verses to encouraging and demanding that the Jewish people give charity (through tithes) or lend money to the poor. In this week’s Torah sidra, the obligation to give to the needy is first expressed in the form of two negative commandments – “You shall not harden your heart and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother” (Deut. 15:7). This is followed by a positive instruction – “Rather you shall surely open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs which he is lacking” (15:8).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Pentateuch observes that the implication of this rather unusual formulation, namely, not to harden one’s heart and not to close one’s hand, implies that the natural tendency of an individual is to have a soft heart and an open hand. In other words, our default mode is to be generous and reach out to help the poor. It takes effort to harden one’s heart (as Pharaoh did despite the severity of the plagues) and be impervious to the plight of our brethren. Similarly, our hands in their natural state are open, which is indicative of a giving and reaching-out stance, and one needs to exert effort to close them. Thus, the Torah, in effect, is telling us to maintain our natural inclinations and help the poor.

On a more homiletic level, Rabbi Moshe Alshich (16th century, Tzfat) sees in the juxtaposition of the two verses cited above a dire warning to help the needy, for if you do not open your hand to the poor when you are able to do so, the Torah warns, then pato’ah tiftah (the latter word is the future form of “to open”), you will eventually open your hand anyway on the day of death. On that day, as the Rabbis teach (Pirke de’Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 34), your money, gold and silver will not accompany you to the next world; only the good deeds – and the money that you gave to those in need – will be there for you. Therefore, it is in one’s best interest to give when you have some measure of control (that is, when you are alive) and when it will redound to your merit.

Other homiletic readings direct us to avoid excuses not to give tzedakah. One might think that tzedakah should only be given to one’s family, or, that the poor did something to deserve their indigence. The basic message that is conveyed in these various interpretations is that excuses not to give abound, but the Torah insists that we should disregard them and instead follow our natural inclination to show care and compassion for the poor in our midst. When we care for those in need then we too will be blessed, for poverty will be eliminated throughout our land. “…There will be no needy among you, for the Lord will surely bless you in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (15:4).

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!
Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.