Parashat Re’eh, the fourth parasha in the book of Deuteronomy, comprises a summary of diverse topics of the four books of the Torah that precede it. At the center of the parasha is Moshe’s series of speeches that he delivered to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River to enter the land of Israel.
״If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your brothers in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open, open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.״ (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
This critical mitzvah (commandment) concerns the treatment of the poor and teaches us that before the B’nei Yisrael entered the Land of Israel, they had to develop a code of social ethics. These verses are worded in the second person, making it clear that this mitzvah reaches and obligates us personally, "from one of your brothers in any of your settlements." The instructions are clear; what not to do, “do not harden your heart and shut your hand,” and what to do “you must open, open your hand,” with a strong emphasis on the word “open.” Many of the laws of tzedakah (charity) familiar to us today derive from these verses.
Numerous commentators have tried to explain how to apply the verse, “lend him sufficient for whatever he needs״ and how this relates to varied levels of scarcity according to different standards. The Gemmorah says: “Concerning this issue, the Sages taught: “Sufficient for his deficiency”; this teaches that you are commanded with respect to the pauper to support him, but you are not commanded with respect to him to make him wealthy”” The Gemmorah then shares the following story: “It was said of Hillel the elder that he took the poor son of a good man to ride a horse and a slave to run in front of him, once did not find a slave to run in front of him and he ran in front of the poor man for three miles”
In this story Hillel teaches a critical lesson on our perspective of the poor,Hillel responds to the particular need of this poor man and is willing to go to the extreme of serving as a slave in order to preserve the man’s dignity. The rule of tzedakah holds that this is not a one-time action, but rather, it is an entire code of ethics with a past, present and future – an intricate system of giving and receiving.
This week, close to my home, I noticed signs that were posted to collect goods for those in need. The signs read: ‘Please, hand over only what you would be happy to receive, yourself!’
Parashat Re’eh encourages us to consider how we, as individuals and as a society, can cross the symbolic Jordan River to reach the Promised Land of Israel, with justice and honesty, and with worthy leadership that provides an abundance of choice for a life of culture, spirit, and love.
Yael Hirsch Biderman is Director of Human Resource at BINA