פרשת בהר - Parashat Behar
The Highest Level of All
Rabbi Nadav Meitav
According to Maimonides, the Mitzvah of giving charity appears in two places – in this week's Sedra and in Parashat Re'eh. To that we can add the Mitzvah of lending to the poor that appears in Parashat Mishpatim and find a common denominator for all three places: the Mitzvah of giving charity was written in all of them in proximity with the Mitzvot of Shemitah [fallow year] and Eved Ivri [Hebrew slave]. The adjacency to these Mitzvot attests to the will behind the Mitzvah of charitable giving – not only to cater to the needs of others in specific instances, but to provide a general solution to the problem of social strata. In this paper I would like to clarify this point.
וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ
And if you brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with you; then you shall keep him, a stranger, a resident, that he may live among you.
In his commentary on this verse, Rashi brings the Midrash from Torat Kohanim that focuses mainly on the word "וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ" – "you shall keep" – keep him from going under, keep him from falling, because it would be much harder to lift him up once he has fallen. On the surface level, the Midrash is saying we should identify those who are in risk of crashing financially and help them even before they have fallen. It seems the aid is provided in the regular manner, but the innovation lies in the timing. Still, some have interpreted this Midrash to mean that we must restore a family to a stable financial situation not only by giving them money, but by ensuring they reach financial independence.
Maimonides, in chapter 8 of his section on the laws of giving gifts to the poor, interprets the Midrash somewhat differently:
שמנה מעלות יש בצדקה זו למעלה מזו, מעלה גדולה שאין למעלה ממנה זה המחזיק ביד ישראל שמך ונותן לו מתנה או הלואה או עושה עמו שותפות או ממציא לו מלאכה כדי לחזק את ידו עד שלא יצטרך לבריות לשאול, ועל זה נאמר והחזקת בו גר ותושב וחי עמך כלומר החזק בו עד שלא יפול ויצטרך.
There are eight levels of charitable giving, each higher than the last, and the highest level of all is that of a keeper of a poor man of Israel who gives him a gift or loan or sets up partnership with him or provides him with work to strengthen him until he no longer needs to beg passers-by, and that is the meaning of וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב – keep him until he no longer falls and is needy.
The new aspect brought into this issue by Maimonides is that of the eight levels of charitable giving, the highest of which is in this verse, beginning with the words וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ. Why is this the highest level? Some have interpreted the emphasis placed by Maimonides to be in the words: עד שלא יצטרך לבריות לשאול – until he no longer needs to beg passers-by – meaning that the purpose and aim is to lead the poor man to financial independence to the point that he no longer needs to depend on others. This interpretation seems to me modern indeed, and not necessarily implied by the words of the Poskim – the Halakha deciders, but it is also quite briefly mentioned, and where mentioned, speaks of extreme cases where certain craftsmen refuse to work in any field but their profession and consequently refuse to provide for themselves. It is not my intention to overrule this interpretation entirely, only to say that it is not common in our literature. And why is this interpretation of where Maimonides places his emphasis also far-fetched? Because he speaks of four ways in which one can achieve this highest of levels: a gift, a loan, a partnership and providing work. The last three ways are clearly ones by which one can ensure another's financial independence, but what about the gift? It therefore seems that the simple meaning is the one mentioned by the Bet Yossef in his book Yoreh De'ah clause 249 – that all levels share one intention – to prevent shame. Is shame merely one more attempt to refrain from hurting another's feelings? On that alone Maimonides bases eight levels of charitable giving?! It seems to me that shame is what defines a person as poor, his feeling of inferiority, of neediness. That is why the highest level is to provide for him and keep him from a place of partnership and reciprocation, to do so in a way that balances out the forces of a society. As the Rav Kook wrote in his commentary on the Mishna in the tractate of Shevi'it – he who repays a loan on the seventh year shall be told: "I am performing Shemitah" but relieved of the funds nonetheless. There is no attempt here to blur the differences between the various social strata in terms of possessions. Some have more possessions while others have less. We are, however, attempting to distort the by-products of these differences in possession that give some the feeling they can control others. It is therefore best that the debt be repaid, but only with the loan taker's consent. The rich may have accumulated many possessions, but they are not entitled to a different stratum. The same is true for the poor – their inferiority in terms of possessions does not dictate having to be treated in a humiliating fashion.
These views are supported by the way we commonly define the poor in our day and age. The poor is not defined as one who has nothing to eat, but as someone whose situation is relatively poorer than that of others. Even the approach that attempts to provide an objective definition speaks of an "appropriate consumption basket" etc. which is a relative term.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this week's Sedra, said similar things of the Mitzvah of giving the poor loans:וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם – And I will take you to me for a People – means that the People of Israel's first and foremost purpose is to be a society of the people of G-d… not to worship G-d in the Temple, but to have a social life that manifests the revelation of G-d's kingdom, and the Mitzvah of giving loans to the poor is a product of this purpose and a derivative action thereof.
The highest level of all reflects not only the work of an individual on his/her virtues and in his/her attempt to be close to G-d by giving charity, it is our hope for an ideal society that manifests the revelation of G-d's kingdom and reflects true and complete social relations.
All of the above fits in with our opening words about the other Mitzvot in this week's Sedra that are designed to establish a more whole social system, rather than serving as specific solutions catering to individual needs.
Rabbi Nadav Meitav is a community rabbi in Or Akiva and the head of the Pardes Hannah Kolel.