In Parshat Behar the Torah reminds us of the great Mitzvah of charity and our obligation to help another in our community who has hit rough times in his livelihood and is in peril of losing everything.
When we take a closer look at these verses, however, we see an additional very subtle message that the Torah is telling us. The verse states, If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him. But in analyzing the language we notice a shift from the previous chapter when the Torah addressed the Jewish people in plural form, to now using singular language as if addressing the individual. Why the switch?
The message that the Torah is giving is best summed up by the statement in Pirkei Avot one who wants others to give but doesn’t give on his own, begrudges what belongs to himself. (5:13)
The Mishna is describing a person who wants others to give because he really does believe in the cause. He might even encourage others to give. And, yet, when it comes to actually taking the next step and making a personal investment, he freezes. As badly as he wants to see the cause succeed, as much as his conscience tells him that the right thing to do is give, he is stuck into thinking that other people will pick up the tab.
The head of a great Torah institution in America once told me that he was sitting with a very wealthy man, a good friend, who knew that he was in the final days of his life. The Rabbi asked the man if he would consider leaving a generous sum of money as an endowment for the Torah institution. The man replied in Yiddish, “my heart wants to, but my hands won’t let me”.
The Torah makes a clear switch of language to let every single one of us know that we are all individually being addressed. Supporting charitable causes is not any more the responsibility of the philanthropist, the foundations, the board members, or our neighbors than the job of every single one of us.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s book “To Heal a Fractured World” he points out that the word Tzedaka is untranslatable “because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice.” The root of the word of the Tzedaka is the word Tzedek, which can mean righteousness, such as a Tzadik, a righteous person, but is also found in the Torah meaning to be just and fair, as when the Torah commands a judge to judge fairly. The word justice seems to connote a sense of entitlement, not the way that one would describe charity.
But Rabbi Sacks continues, “What we possess, we do not own- we merely hold it in trust for God”. When we have the opportunity to support an important charitable cause, it isn’t simply a righteous act that we can do to earn some extra brownie points. It is our responsibility as trustees of the Almighty’s possessions to make sure that we have done our part, and not looked to others, to fulfill the Mitzvah.