If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen 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 kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and do not harbor resentment in giving to him, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (Devarim 15:7-11)
Sometimes my heart is as wide as the sky
and I contribute willingly
but sometimes it’s closed
and my fist is clenched tight.
Sometimes I give when I see her worn face,
her crumbling teeth and watery eyes
and sometimes I see that she’s smoking, and think
she has money to burn – she can earn her own keep.
Sometimes I give because I see that he’s drifting
he’s lost and disheveled, in need of some help
and sometimes his moth-eaten clothes are repellent
so I parry my gaze and accelerate past.
Sometimes I drop some coins from above
as she sits on the ground and rattles her cup
and then our eyes meet and I know I’m a conduit
and it isn’t so clear who gives and who gets.
In their book entitled How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman note that seeking to care for others raises inevitable fundamental challenges. In the first chapter entitled “Natural Compassion” they say, “Somewhere deep within many of us is a vision of how helping would flow from trust in ourselves and in others. Or perhaps we might recall images of life in a town in which doors didn’t have to be locked, responsibilities were more commonly shared, and going out of your way was hardly out of the ordinary. Or maybe we find ourselves yearning for a future society where the care of others wouldn’t have to be mandated. Service wouldn’t be a duty, it would be a habit — the way of natural compassion.
Although at times helping may happen simply in the way of things, all too often helping isn’t happening at all. Even if it is, it can be anything but natural: self-conscious, half-hearted, begrudging. How much are we willing to give, and what are we holding on to? How do we really feel about the place of helping in our lives? We needn’t go deep beneath the surface before we encounter our ambivalence. We note the interplay of generosity and resistance, self-sacrifice and self-protectiveness.”
Dass and Gorman add “… we face an interesting situation. Our impulses to care for one another often seem instinctive. The more we’re able to act on them freely, the more opportunity we have to feel whole, and be helpful. But there are clearly many ways in which we hesitate to reach out or we get confused when we try…”
They consider how it might be when faced with someone asking for money, “We probably won’t get any sense of who this man asking for money really is, because we find it hard to look him in the eye; we find it hard to look most people in the eye; we find it hard to look most people in the eye on the street. We stand next to each other in the elevators and suddenly get interested in our shoes. In many of our dwellings and our communities we’ve invested a good deal in our privacy. If we speak infrequently to our neighbors, are we any more likely to respond to this stranger? With nothing to go on, we guess who he is. Newly released mental patient? We might go to our pocket. Alcoholic? We’d only be making things worse. Who knows? So we give…or we don’t…and we walk on.”
In the Parasha which deals with the laws of the Sabbatical year, Parashat Behar, the people are instructed that they may eat “whatever the land during its sabbath may produce,” (Vayikra 25:6). The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes, “Sometimes the wealthy don’t believe that poor people are actually suffering, suspecting that they are just too lazy to provide for themselves. Let the wealthy undergo the experience of not knowing whether there will be enough to eat, and their attitudes will change.”
On the verse,”Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings” Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz comments, “What you give to the poor is something which is given to him from heaven, and you are only an intermediary who passes it on. [As it says,] you shall surely raise [your enemy’s fallen ass with him] – the help you offer your fellow is something that has been ordained by heaven, and simply the privilege has fallen to you to help him.”
On the same verse, the Dubna Maggid notes that the text says, “Naton titen lo” – which is usually translated as “You shall surely give him,” but the Hebrew actually repeats the verb: the first conjugation, “naton” is an infinitive absolute, which implies emphasis, the second conjugation, “titen” means “you shall give”. So it could be translated as, “Give, you should give”. The Maggid says that God only mandates the first “give”. He says, “The first time you do it out of faith and obligation, but after the first giving, once you see that you lack nothing, indeed the opposite, in place of lack, comes an outpouring of blessing, then you will already give of your own volition…”
In another teaching, the Maggid comments, “You should not check too assiduously if the recipient is worthy or not, you should judge him favorably, thus the Holy One Blessed be He will act accordingly with you, and not check you too assiduously either.” On the phrase, “and do not harbor resentment in giving to him” [the text says, “velo yayra levav’cha betitecha lo”” which literally could be translated “don’t let your heart feel bad when you give to him,”] the Maggid continues, “Don’t check up after him in a mean-spirited way, whether he really needs it, or is worthy, or could actually make a living some other way. For also here…just as you desist from searching for defects in him, God will bless you without being too critical of your deeds, because if He holds to strict justice, no-one is going to be found to be righteous.”
In a commentary on Parashat Re’eh from 2011, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/re-eh/5771/do-we-really-do-tzedakah, Rabbi Marc Wolf examines the first two verses above and suggests that they form the basis for the mitzvah of tzedakah. He says, “Within the above verse[s] two phrases play important roles in defining the halakhah for observing the mitzvah of tzedakah, both of which deal not with the amount of tzedakah to give but the intention and the motivation behind the act. The word choice and grammatical structure are our clues. The first is using the phrase “harden your heart.” In his read on this verse, the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noah Berezovski, goes so far as to assert, quoting Maimonides and other sages, that giving tzedakah requires a pure intention and favorable disposition. The Slonimer states that if we do not give willingly and happily, then although we achieve the desired outcome of supporting someone in need, we are not fulfilling the mitzvah as God would have wanted. The second key phrase is in the charge to “open your hand.” The translation does not pick up on the nuance, but the Hebrew grammar deploys a verb structure that emphasizes the importance of giving. This grammatical structure is echoed further in the text, underscoring the importance of not only the act of giving, but the attitude as well.”
In the final chapter of their book, entitled Reprise: Walking Each Other Home, Dass and Gorman conclude, “Perhaps, finally, we can trust a little more – both ourselves and the process. We have much more to offer than we may realize. All we have to do is ask “How can I help?” with an open heart, and then really listen.”