In the previous letter, we discussed the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah which the nations of the world are to fulfill. The sources that we will cite in this letter indicate that there are also other mitzvos which they are to fulfill.
Among the mitzvos which the People of Israel are to fulfill is the mitzvah of tzedekah – the Divine mandate to share our resources with those in need. From the perspective of our tradition, is tzedakah a mitzvah that all human beings are to fulfill? Do the nations of the world have a Divine mandate to establish caring societies that help and strengthen those in need? We will begin our discussion by mentioning that Ramban, a noted sage of the 13th century, finds a reference to tzedakah and the nations of the world in the following verse from Proverbs (14:34): “Tzedakah uplifts a nation.” He writes: “Tzedakah exalts any individual nation that practices it” (Commentary to Leviticus 17:20). According to Ramban, the classic example of a cruel and selfish society which failed to do acts of tzedakah was the city-state of Sodom, which was why this society was destroyed during the era of Avraham and Sarah. The story of Sodom’s destruction appears in chapter 19 of the Book of Genesis, and in his commentary on a verse from this chapter (19:5), Ramban points out that the root cause of Sodom’s destruction is described in the following Divine message which was conveyed by the Prophet Ezekiel:
“Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy. And they were haughty, and they committed an abomination before Me, so I removed them in accordance with what I saw.” (Ezekiel 16:49,50)
Hashem - the Compassionate One - called the selfishness of Sodom an “abomination”! As Ramban explains:
“The reference (in Genesis 13:13) to their ‘being very wicked and sinful towards Hashem exceedingly’ is to the fact that they rebelled in their prosperity and persecuted the poor, as Ezekiel states: ‘And they were haughty and committed an abomination before Me.’ According to our sages, they were notorious for every evil, but their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and the needy. They were continually guilty of this sin, and no nation could be compared to Sodom for cruelty.”
Another 13th century sage, Rabbenu Yonah, expresses a similar idea:
“We find concerning the sin of Sodom, that although they sinned with many perverse acts such as robbery, violence, miscarriage of justice, and illicit sexual relations, Scripture attributes their annihilation to their failure to practice tzedakah, as it is stated, ‘Behold this was the sin of Sodom, your sister...she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.’ ” (Sha'arei Teshuvah 3:15)
The people of Sodom failed to fulfill their responsibility to practice tzedakah. What is the basis of this responsibility? Rabbi Nissim Gaon, a noted sage of the 11th century, writes in his introduction to the Talmud that human beings in every generation have an obligation to perform any mitzvah of the Torah which is suggested by “reason and the understanding of the heart.” Tzedakah can be viewed as a mitzvah which is suggested by the understanding of the heart; in fact, when the Torah mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah in the Book of Deuteronomy (15:7), the verse states: “You shall not harden your heart!” We are not to allow selfish thoughts or desires to suppress the heart’s capacity for compassion.
According to the above teachings, the nations of the world have a Divine obligation to share their resources with those in need. If they stubbornly refuse to intervene on behalf of the suffering poor, then they too might suffer the fate of Sodom. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a noted sage of the late 19th century, cites a tradition that before the dawn of the messianic age, the Compassionate One will judge the nations of the world for their abandonment of the poor, as it is written (Psalm 12:6): “For the oppression of the poor, for the cry of the needy, I will now arise, says Hashem.” (This teaching is found in “Beis HaLevi on the Haggadah,” in his commentary on the passage, “This is the Bread of Affliction.”)
Let us therefore get ready for the dawn of the messianic age by increasing our acts of tzedakah. As the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “Zion will be redeemed with justice and those who return to her with tzedakah” (Isaiah 1:27). And the Prophet also proclaimed:
“Thus said Hashem: Guard justice and perform acts of tzedakah, for My salvation is soon to come, and My benevolence to be revealed.” (Isaiah 56:1)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 13th century, writes: “All nations must practice tzedakah and compassion, for they exist because of these practices and are punished for their neglect.” This teaching is from Rabbenu Bachya’s work, “Kad HaKemach” (the chapter on tzedakah). There is an English translation of “Kad HaKemach” by Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel titled, “Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts” published by Shilo Publishing House.
2. Within our Sacred Scriptures, we find the Book of Job. Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher cites a tradition that Job was a righteous Gentile who descended from Avraham. (Only the descendants of Avraham’s grandson, Jacob – also known as Israel – became the People of Israel.) Job was stricken with suffering, and his struggle to understand the meaning of his suffering is the theme of the book which was named after him. Job said about himself, “Never did I withhold the needs of the destitute” (Job 31:16). He also said: “The stranger did not lodge in the street; I opened my doors to the wayfarer” (Job 31:32). Rabbenu Bachya offers the following commentary on Job’s statement regarding his hospitality:
“Job lauds himself that his home was open to all wayfarers, strangers, and sojourners, and that no one, regardless of his nationality, ever lodged in the street...He was an extremely pious and thoroughly righteous person. He served God through the ethical mitzvos which can be understood by human reason, and he was kind to all people as well as his own people. This should be an inspiration for the human being to broaden the extent of his compassion.” (Kad HaKemach, The Stranger)