Uniting the Rich and the Poor

We will begin to discuss the mitzvah of tzedakah - the Divine mandate to share our resources with those in need. This theme is part of our series, "The Journey to Unity":
 The Journey to Unity - 60

Uniting the Rich and the Poor:

"The rich and the poor meet, God is the Maker of them all." (Proverbs 22:2)

Dear Friends,

We are all the children of the Compassionate One; yet, throughout human history, the rich - those with abundant resources - often forgot about their brethren who were poor and in need of assistance. In most societies, the poor were viewed as "strangers" - the outcasts of society - ignored even by relatives and fickle friends. As King Solomon wrote: "Wealth makes for many friends, but the poor person becomes separated from his friend" (Proverbs 19:4).

There is a mitzvah - Divine mandate - which connects those blessed with resources with those who lack resources. It is the mitzvah of "tzedakah" - the Divine mandate to share our resources with those in need. Even those with limited resources are obligated to share what they can. In other words, you don't have to be wealthy in order to give tzedakah. As Maimonides writes in his "Mishnah Torah" - a classical work on Torah law: "Even a poor person who is supported through tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another person" (Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor, 7:5). As Rav Leib Heyman, the Rav of my synagogue, explained, the poor person also needs to be involved with the suffering of others; thus, it is required that he make a token contribution to help another needy person.

The word "tzedakah" is derived from the word "tzedek" - the higher and loving Divine justice which "entitles" each creature to receive what it needs. The word "tzedakah" therefore conveys the message that helping someone in need is not just an act of love; it is also an act of justice! This is the radical message of the Torah that we, the people of the Torah, are to bring to the world through the power of our example. This is why the Torah states: "If there shall be among you a needy person, any of your brethren within any of your cities, in the land that the Compassionate One, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him" (Deut. 15:7,8). In another verse, the Torah extends the mitzvah of tzedakah to the needy "ger toshav" - the Gentile resident who follows the universal moral code and who is therefore entitled to live in our land:

"If your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you shall strengthen him - including the convert or Gentile resident - so that he can live with you." (Leviticus 25:35 - Rashi's translation, based on the Sifra.)

Regarding the impoverished individual, the verse states, "strengthen him." In what way are we to strengthen this needy individual? Maimonides gives us the traditional Jewish answer: The words "strengthen him" are teaching us that the highest form of tzedakah is to give someone in need the means to support himself, so that this individual will not have to be dependent on the generosity of others (Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor 10:7). In the ideal Torah society that we are to establish in our own land, we should strive to ensure that all the residents, including the non-Jewish residents, have the means to support themselves.

Tzedakah was the very first mandate which was passed on to future generations of Jews. This is indicated in the following verse where the Compassionate One describes His special relationship with Avraham, our father: "For I have loved him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One to do tzedakah and justice" (Genesis 18:19). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this statement, writes:

"It is the Jewish conception of tzedakah which Avraham is to recommend to his children; it is not that 'charity' which makes the giver proud and humbles the recipient, nor is it that care for the 'lower classes' designed to protect the rich from the bitter anger of the destitute and despairing. It is rather that 'act of duty' to which every necessitous person is given by God the right to claim. This mitzvah enables the poor to stand upright before the rich, and it makes the rich aware that they are the administrators of a treasury which belongs to the poor. (The Pentateuch - translation and commentary by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

The poor are justly entitled to assistance from the rich, for as Rabbi Hirsch explains, the rich are administrators of a treasury which "belongs" to the poor. How are we to understand this radical Jewish idea? The beginning of an answer is found in the following Divine proclamation:

"Mine is the silver, and Mine is the gold - the word of the Compassionate One, God of all the hosts of creation." (Haggai 2:8)

The selfish wealthy individual fails to realize that he is the custodian, and not the owner of his wealth. He forgets that the money which was placed in his custody actually belongs to the Compassionate One, God of all the hosts of creation. The Tur, one of the great codifiers of "halacha" - Torah law - elaborates on this idea:

"A person should not allow in his heart the thought, 'How can I cause myself a loss of money by giving to the poor?' For he should know that the money is not his, as it is deposited with him in order that he should do the will of the One Who placed it with him. And it is His will that it be shared with the poor." (Yoreh Deah 247:3 - the Laws of Tzedakah)

King Solomon therefore warns the wealthy: "Do not withhold good from its rightful recipients, when you have the power to do it" (Proverbs 3:27). The Hebrew word in this verse which is translated as "rightful recipients" is b'alav, which literally means "the owners." Rashi and Rabbi Hirsch cite the following interpretation of this verse: Do not withhold tzedakah from the poor, when you have the ability to give, for they are the rightful owners of the tzedakah which is due them.

Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa excelled in performing the mitzva of tzedakah, states the Talmud (Taanis 24a), and he felt that all his money and resources were on loan to him for the purpose of helping the children of the Compassionate One. His devotion to tzedakah was expressed in the teaching that is cited in his name (Pirkei Avos 3:8):

"Give Him (the Compassionate One) from His own, for you and your possessions are His. And so has David said: 'For everything is from You, and from Your own we have given You' (I Chronicles 29:14)."

Rebbeinu Yonah was a noted 13th century sage, and in his commentary on the above teaching of Rabbi Elazar, he reminds us that all of a person's money is given to him by the Compassionate One for safekeeping. But unlike the case with human despositors, the Compassionate One allows the human being to use part of the deposit for his personal needs. The human being should therefore greatly rejoice that he can personally benefit from part of this deposit in a dignified manner and that he can use the remainder to fulfill the will of its Owner.

The Creator gives us the right to use the resources He gives us, provided that we share these resources with those in need. In this spirit, Rabbi Hirsch wrote in his essay on tzedakah:

"You have nothing so long as you have it only for yourself; you only possess something when you share it with others." (Horeb)


Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings and Comments:

1. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, was the noted disciple of the Vilna Gaon, and the author of "Nefesh HaChaim." His son, Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin, wrote an introduction to "Nefesh Ha-Chaim," and he writes that his father used to constantly remind him of the following truth: "The human being was created not for himself, but to help others as much as he finds he is capable of doing."

2. The story is told about a chassid who presented a long list of personal requests to Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Chassidic Rebbe who is the founder of Chabad Chassidus. After studying the list, the Rebbe said to the chassid, "It is apparent that you have given much thought to your needs on earth. Have you given equal thought to why you are needed on earth?"

3. The "Sefer Chassidim" (1035) states there is an action which may not seem like tzedakah, but from the perspective of the Holy One, it is a very high form of tzedakah. For example, you notice that a poor person is having difficulty selling an item, and you decide to buy it from him in order to help him make a living. This is a great mitzvah, as you are helping him in a way which preserves his dignity.

4. Parts of the above letter have been adapted or reproduced from an anthology of Torah teachings on the mitzvah of tzedakah - "The Tzedakah Treasury" by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer - courtesy of the copyright holder, ArtScroll/Mesorah. This is a practical book, as well as an inspirational one. It deals with the sort of questions that conscientious people ask all the time: How much must I give? What are the priorities? Am I required to give my time and work? Do I have the right to turn down a request? What should I do about the unsolicited gifts that clutter my mailbox? Rabbi Feuer has consulted with many of the great halachic authorities to clarify these issues. For further information visit: www.artscroll.com . The book should be available in your local Jewish book store. A Jewish book store in one's neighborhood or town is providing a valuable service, and it should be supported by the members of the community. If you have specific questions regarding your personal situation and how much you should give, please consult with a rabbi who is familiar with these laws.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/