Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chaim Mordechai Hakohen ben Natan Yitzchak, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Avraham Yechezkel ben Yaakov Halevy, HaRav Yosef Shemuel ben HaRav Reuven Aharon, David ben Elazar Yehoshua, the refuah shlaimah of Devorah bat Chana, and Yitzhak Akiva ben Malka, Leah bat Shifra and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
Our parasha contains two seemingly contradictory pasukim (verses). Initially we are taught, “However, there will be no needy (evyon) among you, for the L-rd will surely bless you in the land the L-rd, your G-d, is giving you for an inheritance to possess.” (Sefer Devarim 15:4) Seven verses later, however, we encounter, “For there will never cease to be needy (evyon) within the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land.” (15:11, these and all Bible translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach) The question is quite clear: “How can the first pasuk proclaim, ‘there will be no needy (evyon) among you’ while the second no less explicitly states, ‘For there will never cease to be needy (evyon) within the land?’” The second century Midrash Sifrei suggests the following answer: “When you (i.e. the Jewish people) perform the will of the Omnipresent, the poor will reside [solely] among the other nations; when, however, you fail to fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, then there will be poor among you.” (Section 118, translation and brackets my own)
Unfortunately, to paraphrase the Sifrei, we live at a time in history when there are many poor among us. As such, we are obligated to fulfill Hashem’s decree, as found in the second half of the latter verse: “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land.” This, of course, is the mitzvah of tzedakah. The word “tzedakah,” derived from the root word “tzedek” connoting justice, is used precisely in this sense in the well-known verse, “Justice (tzedek), justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the L-rd, your G-d, is giving you.” (Sefer Devarim 16:20) Therefore, tzedakah is an authentic representation of distributive justice, in the Jewish community, since, in essence, it embodies the fair apportionment of resources among various members of a community.”
Tzedakah looms large in the collective mind and experience of our people. Little wonder, then, that the Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) devoted an entire chapter of his Mishneh Torah to a discussion of the singular import of tzedakah. Moreover, even though the Mishnah teaches us that Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi declared, “Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot,” (Pirkei Avot 2:1) Maimonides, basing himself upon Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra 9b, unhesitatingly wrote: “We are obligated to be careful with regard to the mitzvah of charity (tzedakah) to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments… (Sefer Zeraim, Matnot Aniyim, 10:1, translation, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger) In other words, even though we are urged to treat all mitzvot as being equal to one another, tzedakah, in Maimonides’ view, is somehow different in kind and degree than all other positive commandments.
At this point, and in classic Jewish cadence, we may very well ask, “How and why is this mitzvah different than all other positive commandments?” The Rambam responds to our question in the following fashion: “… because charity (tzedakah) is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our Patriarch, as [the Torah] states: ‘I have known him, because he commands his children... to perform charity (tzedakah).’” (Sefer Bereishit 18:19) Congruent with Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 79a, Maimonides is teaching us that giving tzedakah and performing other acts of tzedek, embody one of the essential character traits of a member of the Jewish people, so much so that “whenever a person is cruel and does not show mercy, his lineage is suspect” (i.e. we question whether or not they are Jewish, Sefer Zeraim, Matnot Aniyim, 10:2, based upon Talmud Bavli, Beitzah 32b)
Given the fundamental nature of tzedakah within the collective consciousness of the Jewish people, the Rambam urges us to look upon all members of Klal Yisrael (the Congregation of the Jewish people) as being inextricably bound to and responsible for one another: “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh.” As such Maimonides states:
The entire Jewish people and all those who attach themselves to them are as brothers, as [the Torah] states: “You are children unto G-d your L-rd.” (Sefer Devarim 14:1) And if a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them? To whom [in this world] do the poor of Israel lift up their eyes? [Clearly, to one another.] (Sefer Zeraim, Matnot Aniyim, 10:2, brackets my own)
We have just entered Chodesh Elul, the month dedicated to introspection, self-analysis and authenticity in our mitzvot observance. It is equally the time, as well, to embrace new and better behaviors toward each other, and begin to live lives whereby tzedakah is truly the litmus test of who and what we are. With Hashem’s help may this be so. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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