Mordechai Silverstein

A Mitzvah Not to Be Missed

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has opened a Humash (The Five Books of the Torah) that the Torah is interested in social justice. That does not mean that there will not be rich and poor, but it does mean that society has a responsibility to ensure that the needy are taken care of. One expression of this duty is found in this week’s parashah: “And should your brother come to ruin and his hand buckle under you, you should hold him as a sojourning settler, and he shall live under you…” (Leviticus 25:35) The plain sense of this verse is that a person who has suffered economic collapse and becomes poor (your brother) should live together with you and that reasonable steps should be taken so that the person will be able subsist. (Robert Alter)

The Sifra, the Tannaitic midrash on Leviticus (2nd -3rd century), draws an interesting analogy to explain the societal commitment to such a person: “Do not leave him (in a state where) he sinks and falls so that it will be difficult for him to get up; rather help him from the moment he starts to falter. To what can this be compared? To a load on the back of donkey; while the load is still on the donkey, one person is enough to set it right, but if it falls to the ground, five people are not enough to put it back in its place.” (Behar Parshata 5:1; see also Rashi) The upshot of this midrash is resoundingly modern. It is better to catch a problem early rather than to wait until the cost of dealing with it becomes prohibitive.

This wisdom always seems to fall on deaf ears, since people generally have trouble opening themselves up for social welfare expenses, failing to see that prevention costs much less than handling a problem once it festers. This may explain, in part, why both the Tanakh (the Bible) and the Rabbinic sages copiously describe God as a provider of Tzedakah – one who helps the poor and the downtrodden (not that these descriptions are not apt).

The following midrash on a familiar verse from Psalms sheds some light in the significance of this imagery:

Said Rabbi Elazar: ‘He (God) gives bread to all flesh; [His mercy endures forever]’ (Psalms 136:25) – A person comes along and grabs this mitzvah [away from God by feeding the poor]. Said the Holy One Blessed be He: I should pay that person his/her compensation, as it is written: ‘He will repay his due.’ (Proverbs 19:17) (adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 34:2, Margulies edition, p. 774)

In this midrash, God wants us to “steal” this mitzvah away from Him. He wants to share His enthusiasm for helping those in need with His followers and guarantees compensation for those who do as well. Why?  I think the reason is clear. This midrash has great human insight. Human beings need to learn generosity of spirit. As an inducement, God makes Himself a role model and promises reward.

The Torah’s bottom line is that helping others in need is not only practical. It is a mitzvah that is not to be missed.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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