Rabbi Eliad Avruch
Former Shaliach in Atlanta
Tzedakah: For Our Own Good
Eliad Avruch, Kollel Graduate, Atlanta Kollel, 2009
Dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Chanina ben Moshe z”l, who passed away on Erev Shabbat Re’eh 5763.
“If there will be among you a destitute person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land which Hashem, your God, gives you; you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he lacks.” (Devarim 15:7-8)
Parshat Re’eh contains a series of mitzvot which pertain to man’s most important organ – his wallet. Examples includema’asrot (tithes), shmitat kesafim, tzedakah (charity), ha’anakah, and the mitzvah of giving the firstborn to the kohein.
In “Akeidat Yitzchak,” R’ Yitzchak Arama discusses the connection between these mitzvot. Giving is contrary to human nature. People are born with the inherent need to acquire as much as possible; giving one’s belongings to another – especially without remuneration – is unnatural. Therefore, the Torah teaches us about this “unnatural” trait in stages. First, we learn about the mitzvah of ma’aser sheni, which permits one to eat the food one has grown – albeit only in a specific place (i.e. Yerushalayim). Next, the Torah moves on to the mitzvah of ma’aser ani – every three years, one must give ten percent of one’s money. Only afterwards does the Torah command us to observe shmitat kesafim – a loan which is not paid back – and tzedakah, which one donates with the a priori understanding that the money will not be returned.
One question immediately arises: If tzedakah is contrary to human nature, why does the Torah insist that we observe this mitzvah? What is it all about?
The answer to this question can be found in the Gemara (BT Bava Batra 10a):
The wicked Turanus Rufus once asked R’ Akiva a provocative – yet reasonable – question. “If HaKadosh Baruch Hu loves the poor that much, why does He not sustain them Himself? Why does He leave them to the mercies of those who givetzedakah?’
At first glance, R’ Akiva’s answer is rather surprising. “In order that we be saved through [our giving] from the judgment of Gehinnom. (After all, we are taught that giving tzedakah saves one from Gehinnom.)”
Turanus Rufus immediately replied, “On the contrary! [Giving tzedakah] is that which condemns you to Gehinnom! And I shall provide you with a parable: A king got angry at his servant and put him in jail with orders that he not be given food or drink. One of the servant’s friends took pity on him and surreptitiously brought him food and drink. Obviously, if the king were to find out, he would be furious and would perhaps even send the friend to jail as well. The moral is clear. If HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants a certain person to be poor, he is meant to be poor. By giving tzedakah to that poor man, you are denying the Divine plan for that man.”
R’ Akiva responded with a parable of his own. “A king got angry at his son and ordered that he be put in jail without food or drink. One of the son’s friends had pity on him and surreptitiously brought him food and drink. Unquestionably, in spite of the fact that the king is very angry at his son, he is glad that someone disregards his instructions and is concerned about his son. Indeed, he may even thank his son’s benefactor.”
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzvah of tzedakah serves to teach us an important lesson. Of course,HaKadosh Baruch Hu could easily take care of the destitute Himself:
“Hashem impoverishes and makes rich; He humbles, and He also exalts.” (Shmuel I 2:7)
HaKadosh Baruch Huhas the power to decide if a person should be rich or poor. However, He wants us to learn about the midah (trait) of chesed (loving kindness):
“That God wanted those whom He created to be schooled and habituated in the midah of chesed and mercy, because it is a praiseworthy midah. And by training their bodies with good midot, they will be deserving of receiving good…” (Sefer HaChinuch 66)
Hashem seeks to shower us with His goodness. Yet, in order to receive this great, Divine abundance, we must be worthy. Hence, HaKadosh Baruch Hu provides us with the powerful mitzvah of tzedakah, which enables us to serve as His agents in caring for our needy brothers. HaKadosh Baruch Hu gives us an opportunity to do chesed, and thus, we are deserving of the Divine abundance.
We have seen that Hashem uses the mitzvah of tzedakah to transform us into anshei chesed (literally, men of chesed). This mitzvah helps us understand that we are not alone in this world. There is no such thing as:
“I and none besides me.” (Yeshaya 47:8)
The Torah teaches us that it is unacceptable to have a situation where one person suffers under the yoke of poverty while someone else enjoys a life of wealth. The latter is required to support the former and to help him “stand on his own two feet”.
This commandment is also incumbent upon our Torah-based society as a whole. Frequently, when someone raises these issues, we nod, clear our throats, and say something along the lines of, “Yes… It’s very important… Shkoyach.” Parshat Re’eh comes to remind us that tzedakah is more than just a lofty and beautiful ideal. Rather, each and every one of us is obligated to observe this mitzvah.