Minutes of Torah


This week’s parashat Re’eh includes one of the great paradoxical teachings of the Torah. Moses reiterates and expands upon the institution of the shmita — the sabbatical year in which the ground is to be left fallow and all financial obligations are extinguished; and he proclaims boldly that if the Israelites follow Divine directions when they establish their new society in the Promised Land, “there shall be no needy among you.”

Yet in virtually the same breath, Moses maintains that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” This will necessitate an ongoing response of open-handed and open-hearted generosity.

This week’s portion invites us to examine our resistance when we are called to be generous through tzedakah which, according to a Talmudic view, is of paramount importance “equal to all the other commandments.” Not only are we enjoined to give tzedakah, but as well, to “give with an open hand and open heart.”

The 19th century German commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch concludes that while concern for the needy is our natural reaction to a request for tzedakah and our hands and hearts are naturally open, they are subject to the yetzer ha’ra — the evil inclination, which tries to convince us to close our hands and our hearts.

If, as Hirsch claims, generosity is an innate quality with which we as human beings come ‘factory-equipped,’ what obstacles block our ability to enact this godly trait? Our passage suggests that unjustified fear of scarcity is our primary challenge. After describing the sabbatical year practice of forgiving debts owed every seven years, Moses warns about harboring the fear-based thought that because the sabbatical year approaches, one’s loan to another is likely not to be repaid, and one will suffer loss.

For many of us, when it comes to giving with an open heart and heart, we experience a fear of scarcity, the thought that we will not have enough for ourselves or our loved ones. This thought represents an initial ‘signal’ we receive from our evil inclination.

But we need to ask: Am I truly at risk if I give? Is this a false alarm, or an important alert?

Let me illustrate how this fear can be seen as irrational.  Say that you went shopping for a new suit for the upcoming High Holiday season, and you saw one you wanted to buy but you discovered that it costs $20 more than you had budgeted. Of course, you are fiscally conscious.  Nevertheless, you conclude that with the ample resources in your savings and investment accounts, you can easily shoulder this “$20 surprise.”

Now consider this situation: You see a wretched looking person in the street, your heart pours out to the individual as you approach and you open your wallet, certain that you are going to give.  Only then do you discover that your wallet only contains 20s.  Will you conclude that this “$20 surprise” can also be handled by your accounts?

And if not, why not?

When we find ourselves facing our naturally-occurring fear of scarcity, we might want to remind ourselves of the grace through which we receive our material blessings. And if we can remember that everything we ‘own’ is really a ‘loan’ from our Creator, perhaps we might consider that our being ‘generous’ with our possessions, is just as important as our ‘continued ownership’ of them would be; and that each — ‘generosity’ and ‘continued ownership’, represents a valid claim on our possessions.  

This is the nature of the mitzvah of tzedakah: its foundation and source is faith in God. We must believe that all that we have is not ours, but God’s, for we and all we have are God’s.

Fear of scarcity often obstructs the natural flow of generosity, tightening our hands and hearts to those in need. By seeing more clearly our sometimes, irrational inclination to frighten ourselves unnecessarily, generosity can arise from within us. We need to always remember that the resources we hold are entrusted to us to meet our own needs as well as others. And when we do, may our hands and hearts open naturally in response to the needs of others.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz


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