Responding Swiftly To Need

Charity is rooted in our understanding that those who need our help are indeed our brothers.

Commentary on Parashat Behar, Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2

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.

Rashi is specific about the process implied by the Torah’s imagery: As soon as a person’s hand begins to slip, Rashi tells us, you must grab hold of him and not let him fall any further, because, if he does, it will be much harder to raise him up. Rashi illustrates the Torah’s understanding of this process with an interesting parable. If a mule is carrying a load, as long as the load is balanced on the mule’s back, it takes only one person to steady it, and make sure it doesn’t fall off. Once the load has fallen to the ground, however, even five people will have trouble lifting it up again.

According to Rashi, the message is clear–we are called upon by the Torah to be sufficiently sensitive to our brother (to be “with” him) so as to be in a position to notice if he is “slipping,” even the slightest bit, financially. Just as the mule driver keeps his hand on the load, the good “brother” is in touch with his fellow’s situation. And, just as the mule driver will immediately respond with a slight adjustment when the load begins to slip, we are also called upon to respond, with an interest-free loan, if our “brother” begins to drop the financial ball.

The Torah, as Rashi explains it, understands what the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not. To allow a person to slip and fall, to lose everything before we are willing to help him, is a perversion of the central interaction of charity.

In Jewish law, the mitzvah, commandment, to help others is rooted in the other’s being a brother. This, the Torah stresses, is a status we grant to “strangers and sojourners” as well; anyone who is “with” us is our brother. It is precisely this relationship–his being a “brother,” “with you,” that at one and the same time triggers the obligation to help him, gives us the ability to help him, and defines the parameters of the help we must give him.

Only if I am close to my fellow and his situation, “with” him, only if I am sensitive to the slightest threat to his financial well-being, can I take the necessary, and, at this early stage, still small steps to help him in time, before it becomes a major problem. My closeness and sensitivity to him, and my commitment to maintaining that closeness, are precisely what enable me to quickly and efficiently respond to his needs, and make sure that he doesn’t go from being my “brother” to becoming something else, something “other,” something that lies on the ground, like the mule’s load, beyond help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sees it in precisely the opposite way: Only when someone is no longer “with” us, when he has been reduced to something other than a “brother,” an equal, and has become something that we can classify as deviant, needy, not “with” us, will we help him. As long as he is a “brother”–a home-owner, not on the street, not impoverished–we will not help him. We will, perversely, wait until he is reduced to the status of an “other,” a “non-brother” and only then will we help him.

Or not. Because, as Rashi says–if the one individual (and not some faceless governmental agency) doesn’t help him in time, and he actually falls, then even five people–even an entire governmental bureaucracy–will have trouble getting him up on his feet again.

The implications here about individual as opposed to collective responsibility, and the ways in which we define and relate to those whom we are willing to help, and the actual goals of the assistance we do give, are worth some thought.

Reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

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