In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Re'eh, the Torah obligates us to help out the needy. The verses tell us:
If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities ... you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking. (Devarim 15:7-8)
The great commentator Rashi quotes for us the Talmud's interpretation of this verse (in Ketubot 66b):
" 'Sufficient for his needs what he is lacking:' Even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him if he is accustomed to this type of lifestyle. 'What he is lacking:' This refers to a spouse (i.e., you should help him find a wife)."
Surprising at it may seem, the Talmud is telling us that when we write out those checks to all of our preferred and very important charitable causes, we shouldn't forget about that neighbor of ours who couldn't make the payments on his car, or second car for that matter and had to forfeit it. Or the family members who just had to cut their domestic help down to one day a week. Or the friends who for the last decade had a beautiful, large home and now have to downsize because of a cut in pay.
While it is important to seek out guidance when we finds ourselves stuck between various good charitable causes, certainly the Torah's message here should not be lost. We learn here that the first step in giving charity is to really try and understand the people around us and what their needs are. We are not absolved from the mitzvah of tzedaka when we write a semi-annual donation to our synagogue, hand a single to the beggar on the corner and attend a gala dinner that at which our friend is being honored. The opportunity to give charity presents itself every single time someone in our life is going through a difficult time.
Often, when we hear a friend or loved one complaining about something that we can't seem to relate to, the thought might cross our mind, "How could you be complaining about this? Why don't you look at all the good you have in your life?" We might compare that person's issues with our own, which, to us, seem so much more difficult. Not to mention that we all unfortunately know someone who is sick with a terminal illness, and that there are children in the world that are starving!
But the truth is that the Almighty sends everyone the challenges and tests that are appropriate for them in that time. Something that might seem trivial to us, for another person could be the source of very deep pain. As the Talmud says, "Even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him if he is accustomed to this type of lifestyle."
A student of the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once entered the home of his teacher just as he was finishing up a meeting with one of the women from the community. From the look on both of their faces it was evident that they both had been crying bitterly. The student asked Rabbi Feinstein what was the cause of all the tears. Rabbi Feinstein answered "I really don't know. This woman came in and sat down at my table and just began to sob. When I saw how much pain she was in, I couldn't control myself and began to sob with her. After a few minutes of crying, she just stopped, thanked me profusely for making her feel better, and left."
Sometimes the greatest form of charity requires us to just stop and take notice of the people around us who are going through an ordeal, and whether or not we can relate, to just empathize with them, cry with them and feel their pain. And if it is within our means to help them through it, it is certainly a worthwhile cause.