Responding Swiftly To Need
Charity is rooted in our understanding that those who need our help are indeed our brothers.
The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.
The other day, I read an article in the New York Times that made my blood boil. It was about the relatively small amounts of money that have been disbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to victims of the September 11th terrorist attack on New York--people who have lost jobs, homes, businesses, spouses whose salaries supported them, and who, as a result of FEMA's policies, have not gotten the help they need to get back on their feet.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is the fact that many private charities have given money to the victims, which often rendered them ineligible to receive federal aid. Another is FEMA's policy to not help people with mortgage, rent, or debt payments until the victims have received an eviction or foreclosure notice. Many people who would be eligible recipients of federal aid have been understandably reluctant to allow themselves to get to that stage, fearful that they might not get the federal funding in time to stave off eviction (or ever), and are therefore spending their last pennies on keeping up their mortgage or rent payments.
When I read this frustrating article, I could not help but think of a section in this week's parasha. In parashat B'har, there are a number of short sections which begin with the same words: "Ki yamuch achicha"--"if your brother should sink down [into poverty]…" The Torah presents us with a number of such situations, with a number of different scenarios; the financially strapped person sells his land, or sells himself into slavery, for instance. In each of these scenarios, the Torah has a recommended mode of behavior for the members of the community to follow, through which the unfortunate "brother" can be helped.
One of the Torah's recommendations is to give such a needy person an interest-free loan. We read in Leviticus, chapter 25, verse 35: "And should your brother sink down [into poverty] and his hand slips with you, grab hold of him, be he a sojourner or a resident, so that he may live with you. Do not take from him interest or profit, but hold your God in awe, so that your brother may live with you."
Rashi (a medieval French commentator) and the other commentators draw our attention to the imagery the Torah uses to describe the process of becoming poor and the recommendations for halting it--"sinks down," "his hand slips," "grab hold of him"--physical images of someone who is "with you" and is in danger of slipping down into an existence that will not be "with you," and from which you must save him.