In this week’s Parashah, we are commanded to assist another Jew who is struggling financially as the Torah states, “VeChi Yamuch Achicha, UMatah Yado Imach, VeHechezakta Bo,” “When your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you must come to his aid.” (VaYikra 25:35). This same idea of helping a fellow Jew is expressed when the Torah states, “Im Kesef Talveh Et Ami,” “If thou lend money to any of My people” (Shemot 22:24; and see Rashi ad. loc.), implying that we should lend money to those who are in need.
We live in a time when, unfortunately, financial struggle has become a way of life for many. Throughout Jewish history, there have always been those who give and those who take, but today, with the ever widening chasm between the rich and the poor, there are more who are relegated to take and fewer who are prepared to give. However, the Jewish people have always risen to their appellation of being merciful people and Ba’alei Chesed. This compassion is highlighted in the Gemara in Yevamot (79b) which lists that eagerness to help others, even beyond one’s means in some cases, is a defining characteristic of a Jew.
Rashi (VaYikra 25:35 s.v. VeHechezakta Bo) presents an analogy to better understand the obligation of helping Jews. When a donkey’s heavy load begins to slip off its back, even one person can fix it and prevent the donkey from falling. Once the donkey has fallen, however, even a pool of people cannot stand it up again. Similarly, once a fellow Jew has been bogged down in severe debt, it is exceedingly difficult to raise him up; therefore, we must help him when he is faltering. In fact, the highest level of Tzedakah is not giving a large sum of money to a poor person per se, but giving money to a person who will subsequently have no need for Tzedakah and will be financially independent.
The Alshich (ad loc.) notes that the preceding Pesukim speak in the plural while this Pasuk employs Lashon Yachid, singular form, when it uses the word “Achicha,” meaning your one brother. He explains that the Torah takes a pragmatic approach towards financial assistance and, and as a result, factors in the bystander effect. How often do we direct the fellow in need to see someone else? We always know the address of our well-to-do neighbors and we are always too happy to give it out. We do everything but offer our own help; but what about our own responsibility to offer assistance? Therefore, the Torah turns to every individual and explicitly states: “You must help. You have an obligation. Do not shirk your responsibility and place it upon your friend. He will do his part, but you must also do yours!”
HaRav Shlomo MeiKarlin goes even further in his interpretation of the Torah’s demand that we help our impoverished brother, and focuses on the phrase, “VeHechezakta Bo.” If you want to help a Jew who has fallen into the mud, get down on the ground. It is necessary sometimes to get down on the ground with him and raise him up. We do not pull him up, but rather we lift him up. It is easy to write a check, but what about getting our hands dirty and personally doing something about our friend in need and putting effort into his troubling affairs?
The Midrash explains that when a mendicant comes to a person’s door asking for assistance, Hashem stands to his right side, as the Pasuk states, “Ki Ya’amod Limin Evyon,” “Because He stands at the right hand of the needy” (Tehillim 109:31). If one does not give the beggar what he needs, he should remember what is written in Tehillim (41:2): “Ashrei Maskil El Dal BeYom Ra’ah Yi’malteihu Hashem,” “Happy is he that considers the poor; Hashem will deliver him in the day of evil.” But what does it mean to be “Maskil El Dal?” How should one consider the plight of the poor man? The Chafetz Chaim paints a scenario to answer this question. A person lives his life in this world and one day he is summoned to his eternal rest. He now has to give an accounting for his deeds and stands before the Heavenly Tribunal holding a Sefer Torah as he is questioned in regard to each Mitzvah in the very Torah that is in his arms. Of course he will be queried in regard to “VeHechezakta” and the Tribunal will refresh his memory of the night when the poor man came for help but was turned away dejected, depressed, and brokenhearted. The Tribunal enlightens him regarding how the beggar felt when he came to beg for money and was not given any: “The decision to see you did not occur overnight. He spoke it over with his wife and they felt that, while it is not easy to go to a man of means and beg, they had no other alternative. He gathered up his courage and came to your house and begged, yet you refused. Do you know how he cried that night, the tears that flowed in his house? Do you have any idea how his children must have felt when he came home empty-handed? They lost hope, and it was all because of you. Stand here and accept responsibility for your actions—the pain you caused the poor man, his family, and Hashem, who listened to their inconsolable weeping. As you had no compassion on the beggar, the heavenly Tribunal will have no compassion on you!”
This powerful story teaches us the importance of the Mitzvah of assisting a fellow impoverished Jew. There are infinite justifications for closing our pockets, but in the end, Tzedakah is contingent upon the contributor. Tzedakah is a Mitzvah of paramount importance—the most difficult according to some— and carries severe consequences when a person is thoughtless. On the other hand, Tzedakah provides incomparable reward when performed properly.