This Shabbat we will read two connected parashot, ‘Behar’ and ‘Bechukotai’. In this parasha we meet one of the most important mitzvahs, perhaps the mitzvah that most characterizes the Jewish people: the mitzvah of charity.
“If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you, you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he can live with you.”
The Midrash draws our attention to the fact that this is not a person who has completely lost his financial ability and is defined as ‘poor’. According to the midrash, this verse deals with a person who is in the process of economic deterioration. Anyone who knows a little about economics knows how difficult it is to stop a process of economic deterioration.
The Midrash compares the moments before the degradation to a load on a donkey, just before the fall. If the donkey and the load are still standing, it is enough for one person to catch the donkey and prevent the fall. But if the donkey and the load collapse, it may need five people to stand them up.”
That man who is collapsing, a respectable business owner, businessman or farmer, suddenly lost his firm grip. His livelihood is in danger, and he is afraid of tomorrow. In such a situation, we Jews are called to help: “And hold him!” We are required to reach out to him, to hold, to prevent the collapse.
The famous Maimonides- Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), in his book ‘Mishna Torah’, listed eight levels in the mitzvah of charity. The first and most important of them is based on the verse which we mentioned:
“A great virtue that cannot be surpassed is the one who holds in the poor and gives him money or a loan or makes a partnership with him or find a job for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he does not fall or need again.”
The purpose of the mitzvah of charity is not only to save the life of the poor. Certainly, there are cases where assistance is urgently required, which is defined as “psychological supervision.” But value does the mitzvah of charity deal with besides the life of the poor? It deals with human dignity.
Therefore, the greatest virtue, says Maimonides, is not to provide for the poor, but is to prevent him from being poor, to stop the collapse, the drift. To reach out to him so that he does not end up in a situation where he will need the kindness of mankind. The dignity of the other person is important enough to lean a shoulder and help him find his livelihood with dignity.
As Maimonides testifies, “We have never seen or heard about a Jewish community that does not have a fund of charity.” The mitzvah of charity is not only of a personal-private duty but is an inseparable part of the Jewish community: the community makes sure that all its members earn a decent living.
The Parsha teaches us that questions of economy and well-being of others is part of our daily Jewish life. A person, community or state that embraces the values of Judaism and works in light of them, places at the top of the scale of goals the ability for all members of the community to earn a living with dignity, thereby guaranteeing human dignity and freedom.
Rabbi Refael Cohen