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   by Jacob Solomon

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If there is a destitute person among you you must not harden your heart or close your hand. You shall open your hand to him, you shall lend to him according to his needs (15:7-8).

This section of the Parasha deals with tzedaka, the requirement to help a person according to his or her own individual situation. That word is loosely translated as charity; however the Torah makes it quite clear that it is not an optional act of benevolently parting with a slice of one’s wealth, but a social obligation. Unlike in much of the wider world, an Israelite is regarded as a moral delinquent for failing to help those in need.

Amongst the questions raised on this section are the following:

  1. A person who refuses to grant a deserving person a loan for fear that its repayment will be legally cancelled by the Shemitta (Sabbatical) year is described as beliyaal – ‘lawless’ (15:9). The only other place in the Torah where that expression is used is in connection with the Ir Hanidachat (the ‘doomed city’) – to describe a group of people who purposely perverted an Israelite city’s population into idol worship (13:14). What is the connection between idolatry and failure to help those in need?
  2. How may the following be reconciled? On one hand it states that ‘there should be no destitute amongst you’ (15:4), but a few sentences later the Torah appears to assure that ‘destitute people will not cease to live within the Land’ (15:11).

The Kli Yakar gives an insight into the Torah attitude towards tzedaka. He notes that whenever the Torah writes about giving to another person – be it tzedaka, tithes, a loan, or supporting a slave, it always uses the double form of the verb – in these respective cases, patoach tiftach, aser ta-aser, naton titain, and ha-aneik ta-anik respectively. The reason for these double expressions, writes the Kli Yakar, is because the act of giving is twofold. One part is giving with the hand – be it money or food. The other is giving with your mouth – which is the conveying of a positive attitude when giving. In other words, the mitzvah of tzedaka has not been fully carried out if the recipient feels ashamed and put down. Thus many rabbis entrusted with Pesach funds to help needy families often do so through a friendly, annual social call … leaving ‘something’ behind with a message of ‘perhaps you could help me to find a home for the food items that so and so gave me…’

Giving to the poor is a sensitive issue – people, of whatever background and circumstances are touchy and have their personal pride. George Orwell, one of the most famous English writers of the twentieth century, disguised himself as a tramp [vagrant, usually male] in the London area, in an effort to get to grips with the daily existence of multitudes for whom poverty is a way of life. He cites the then common situation of how the tramps reacted to the church giving them food - with a church service tacked on.

We ranged ourselves in the gallery pews and were given our tea (evening meal); it was a one pound jam-jar of tea each, with six slices of bread and margarine. As soon as tea was over… the organ let out a few preliminary hoots and the service began. And instantly, as though at a signal, the tramps began to behave in the most outrageous way. One would have not have thought such scenes possible in a church. All around the (tramps)… laughed, chattered, leaned over and flicked pellets of bread among the congregation… The explanation of course is that we outnumbered the congregation, so we were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it. (George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London , 1933).

In a similar context, the Rambam writes that there are there are eight degrees of tzedaka. The highest is to aid a person by offering him a gift or a loan, by entering into partnership with him, or by providing work for him, so that he may become self-supporting. The second degree is where the giver and recipient do not know each other. The third is where the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver… and in only the fifth, the giver and recipient do know each other. Implicit in the Rambam’s hierarchy is the prime importance of not undermining the recipient’s self respect (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 10:8ff).

From this discussion, it would come out that the real meaning of ‘naton titein’ – ‘you shall surely give’ and other similar double forms is that the Torah ideal of tzedaka is making the physical gift a spiritual gift as well – so that the both the recipient’s material position and self esteem improve.

This principle helps to answer the original two questions. If a person hesitates before granting a needy person a loan on the grounds that the Sabbatical year may cancel the obligation to repay the debt, his whole approach to tzedaka is wrong – from both the physical and spiritual aspects. If this is the only reason for his refusal, he is demonstrating a lack of faith in the Creator to take of his own needs. This is the first step of the literal meaning of beliyaal – being lawless. He is refusing to accept authority of G-d’s law – His promise that He will protect the donor as well as the recipient - the first step towards idolatry.

As to the second question, the Sifrei (114) resolves the issue by saying that when the Israelites fulfill the will of G-d there will be no destitute people, but poverty will continue to exist as long as they do not. The above discussion shows us the real meaning of ‘doing the will of G-d’ in this context – giving tzedaka - not only means attending to their day to day material needs, but aiming to give them the facilities and incentives to improve their skills and earning power so that the poverty class and mentality as a whole may be eradicated.

(As a postscript – may I suggest that the reason that Hillel introduced the Prozbul is because in his day the nature of the financial world had already changed from personal loans to include larger scale business transactions which were to some degree outside of the spirit of the above discussion?)



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