Parsha Mitzvot: Re’ei: Charity
At 5AM I was at the stop sign at the entrance to my neighborhood. I was on my way to my morning hike and I didn’t expect too much traffic, but this morning it was actually dangerous. A few cars refused to stop.
Each time I was about to drive forward, a car came shooting past the stop sign and cut me off. Finally, one car stopped and it was safe for me to make my turn.
I thought about Sir Isaiah Berlin’s definition (in The Hedgehog and The Fox) of “Positive” and “Negative” freedoms. The former is the ability to do what I want. The latter is my acceptance of certain rules in order to allow me to function in society. A red traffic light forces me to stop. Although it limits my positive freedom; I can’t drive ahead just because it is what I want to do, it allows me the freedom to drive ahead when the light is green. I can rely on people stopping for the light that is red for them. The negative freedom allows me to drive with more security. When other people refuse to obey the laws, I lose my negative freedom. I gave up my ability to drive without stopping assuming that cars driving across the road would also stop. The cars I saw this morning did not stop. They deprived me of my freedoms, positive and negative.
It was remarkable that all the cars that refused to stop were quite expensive. They were high end BMWs, Mercedes, and Lexus. The car that finally stopped was more of my kind of car; an older Ford. It almost seems that the rules do not apply if you can afford a car worth more than $50,000 (Or, if you’re Argentine; but that’s a different story – See Broken Rules II)
One of the reasons that I love Halacha – The Torah’s Instructions For Traveling Through Life – is that it creates a system that makes sense and helps preserve our sanity. For example: I must rebuke someone for doing something I find hateful. I must speak with care and respect, but I may not keep my negative feelings inside. (See The Music of Halacha Rebuke I & 2) The system actually works if the other person is willing to hear what I have to say. In fact, the Ibn Ezra explains that usually he will be able to explain why he acted the way he did, and everyone leaves the situation in a happy mood. The system only works if all parties cooperate. What happens when someone breaks the rules? What happens if I choose to function within the system and the other rejects it?
The Torah, in this week’s portion, Re’eih, addresses this issue and has a message for people who speed through stop signs: “Rather, you shall surely open your hand to him (the poor person): you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.” (Deuteronomy 15:8) The Talmud teaches that “his requirement” means that we must provide the poor person with the standard of living that he has lost. Hillel the Elder hired people to serve as runners for a wealthy man who had lost everything. The man was accustomed to great fanfare whenever he traveled and Hillel felt that it was important for the man’s dignity. One day, Hillel couldn’t hire anyone so he served as the runner.
The Mitzvah of Tzedaka – Charity – obligates us to pay attention to the specific needs of the recipient. The Torah wants us to see the world through the eyes of the other. We cannot survive when we only see the world through our own eyes. “His requirement” reminds us to deal with others based on their needs and perspectives.
Halacha wants the wealthy and secure person to pay close attention to those who also were once wealthy and secure. The wheels of life turn. The system continues whether or not we pay attention or obey the rules.