Thursday, 8 May 2014

Help the Donkey - Before it's too Late!

This week's Parsha - Parshat Behar, contains a selection of exceptionally powerful principles on the topic of kindness, charity and honesty (even if the verses seem to be somewhat mixed within a variety of other important Torah areas.)

The verse teaches (Leviticus 25:35), "If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him... so that he can live with you." This is perhaps one of the most powerful verses in the Torah discussing the Mitzvah of Tzedakah - charity. But what does this have to do with helping a donkey?

Rashi teaches us a vital lesson, as he states regarding this verse: The verse does not use the expression, 'and you shall stand him up" but rather, 'you shall strengthen him.' This is because the verse is teaching us regarding the situation of a person who has not fallen yet. He is still standing (so to speak). But the verse comes to warn one - don't let him descend further and fall completely, because if that happens, it will be most difficult to stand him up again! Rather - the verse teaches - strengthen him now - from the moment he stretches out his hand (the literal translation of the verse) before he falls. This is like a person who is about to fall and his hand stretches out (as if he is hoping to catch something to steady himself and save himself from falling.)

Rashi explains: What is this compared to? To a donkey with a load on it which is now becoming unsteady and about to fall onto the ground. If the load is still upon the donkey, a person can hold onto it and steady it and stand it back to its place. However, if it has already fallen onto the ground, then even five men will be unable to stand it up again! So too here, support the poor person and strengthen him in order to prevent him from falling.

The message is clear. The giving of charity is something done best the moment the poor person asks. All too often we make our own accounts in our heads that a person looks okay - they surely are not in need (even though they are asking.) We give them ideas for new projects that will "surely" make them wealthy. We already know them so well that it simply can't be that the truth is as they say - that they have no money and that they are unable to continue living the way they are any longer. Others choose not to believe that the other is actually desperate and in great need of money - to live.

We make up things that they will be able to make it through. We even think to ourselves - that if we ever will see them fall completely that then we will help them. All sorts of accounts in our own heads - just as long as we don't have to come through to help them. Whether it's their need for food, clothing or shelter or other necessary things in life, we imagine to ourselves how the other will surely manage. And if not... then we will take care of them. But for now - we're exempt. They will turn out just fine!

Our verse teaches us different. The time to help is when the hand of the poor person is stretched out. His stretching out his hand to us, is his way of telling us that he is about to fall - just like a person who is literally about to fall and sticks out his hand ready to grasp anything that will steady him again.

The verse warns -- but if you wait and think that there will be another time that you can help - when you see the other (in your eyes) as really needing, at that time, it may already be too late. The donkey will have fallen with it's load. And whereas the help given just moments before would have steadied the person again, giving him hope to continue, now, not even five men will be able to do the job of assisting this person back onto their feet again. The humiliation they will now have to go through... The fact that they had to sell their most sentimental items (just to get by - and will never be able to get back again)... The total embarrassment they will have to experience as the entire community now begin their talking about the latest poor fellow who they must help - Nebach! The shame. Nothing will ever help to regain the person who once was - who he was before the fall.

We must think of the donkey every time a poor person asks for help - of any kind. It will be a tragedy for us all if it falls. It may even be impossible to ever lift them up again - even with a group of the strongest of men!

The Rambam teaches that the highest level of charity is to prevent a person from becoming poor by offering a loan or employment (honest - where the employee is paid so that he can live with the income he receives!) investing in his business or any other assistance that will avoid the poverty he finds himself in. Let us never forget that powerful teaching from the Rambam - because it is through acts of kindness - of genuine caring and concern for the other, doing everything we can to help them to live - just like us - that will hasten to repair the world, bringing true happiness to all. 

May it always be that that person - who once lacked - live with us - with all the necessities and luxuries we desire and expect for ourselves.

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