Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34)
This Shabbat, we’ll read Parshat Behar-Behukotai in our synagogues. Most of the social and economic issues in Biblical discourse and the Jewish world are addressed in this reading. The first part of the Torah portion discusses the laws of the Shmitta (Sabbatical) year, which recurs every seven years. This is the year that farmers stop tilling their fields. The populace is free to visit the orchards and enjoy all kinds of fruits. Many purposes were associated with this unique year.
One of the ideas behind this halacha was that it would foster awareness of the fact that Hashem holds dominion over Earth. Another is that this is a time to gently apply the brakes on the money-generating wheels of the wealthiest echelon of society, and, in a way, open doors for the poor, who can now come and enjoy the fruits of the fields of the rich.
Following the description of the Sabbatical year, the Torah continues with a discussion of the socio-economic revolution engendered in the Jubilee year, when slaves are set free and allowed to return to their homes and families. This is also when land that had been sold throughout the preceding decided would return to their original owners. Having such an institution in society dramatically “reshuffles the deck” of the economy, creating a new social order, though the laws of the Jubilee year have not been in practice since the destruction of the First Temple.
The next part of the Torah portion covers day-to-day life, the laws of commerce, the prohibition of fraud, the prohibition of charging interest, the laws governing the sale of houses and land, and more. The Torah describes a case in which one of our friends experiences financial difficulties: “If your brother becomes destitute, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him; the convert and the resident, shall he live with you…” [Lev. 25:35].
Indeed, when our friend is subjected to economic hardship, “… and his hand falters beside you”: he will turn to you for help. He will stretch out his hand and plead for a helping hand. What must we do in such situations? The Torah’s answer seems puzzling, both syntactically and semantically: it begins with “your brother” and ends with “a convert or a resident”. The words “and you shall strengthen him”, are not entirely clear. Would it not have been more accurate to simply state, “and you shall help him”, instead of “strengthen him”?
From this phrase, “you shall strengthen him”, our Sages inferred a marvelous principle concerning how we support the weaker elements of society. Rashi, one of the greatest biblical exegetes, writes: “Do not allow him to fall down and collapse altogether, in which case it would be difficult to pick him up again [from his dire poverty]. Rather, ‘hold him’ while his hand is still faltering [for then it is easier to help him out of his trouble]. To what can this be compared? To a load on a donkey: while it is still on the donkey, one person can grasp it and hold it in place. Once it falls to the ground, however, [even] five people cannot pick it up.”
When you see someone beginning to fall, hold him, don’t let him fall and only then offer a helping hand. We are entreated to do all we can so that our friend never reaches the state of becoming needy. We must therefore help him earn a dignified living, and if he does, he won’t need anyone else’s help later on. If we were to translate Rashi’s suggestion into a social policy, it would need to mainly create jobs for people, ensuring that everyone can make a living from the work they do.
The way forward does not mean increasing handouts to the able-bodied. Of course, the ill-fated among us who cannot work must receive regular charity from the society in which they live.
Nevertheless, this is a rather inferior level of tzedakah. In his treatise on the laws of tzedakah, Maimonides writes:
There are eight degrees of Tzedakah, one higher than the other. The highest degree of all is where one strengthens the hands of an Jew who faces poverty, giving him a gift or a loan, entering into a business partnership with him, or giving him a job in order to strengthen his hand and to prevent him from becoming an object of Tzedakah. It is with regard to this that Scripture says: ‘you shall strengthen him… so that he can live with you’. The meaning is: “Strengthen him before he falls and needs to be supported by others” [Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:7-14]
The highest level of tzedakah gives another human being a sense of dignity and enables him to earn a respectable living. When contemplating these verses, we realize that Rashi stresses both the idea of human dignity and the economic justification of this action. When a person has fallen, five people will find it difficult to help him. Conversely, when a person works and earns a living, he may only need help from one person. What is interesting here is that the verse ends with the words “a stranger and a resident”. The verse began with a “brother”, and ended with a “resident”, to teach us that even if the person in need is “merely” a resident or a stranger, this is the right thing to do.
From a moral standpoint, a stranger should also be afforded human dignity. This also holds true from an economic standpoint, since the right kind of preparation at the beginning will save us resources in the end. This principle is particularly true in the case of a brother. Yet this verse isn’t just talking about economic help designed to batten down the hatches. Preparing the necessary social infrastructure to support individuals and groups before they collapse is always better than providing emergency relief after someone has already reached rock-bottom.