The Best Way to Provide Support

Rabbi Shaul Vider is a Ra”m at Midreshet Lindenbaum

Shaul ViderI am fortunate to be presented with the opportunity to write about one of the central themes of Parshat Behar.  Although this portion is a relatively short one, it still contains a few unique topics like the mitzvah of Shmitta (the land’s Sabbatical year), which is taking place in the Land of Israel right now!  But for me, the most central verse in this parsha is: “And if your brother should become impoverished, and the hand he has with you shall fall; then you shall support him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with you.” (Vayikra 25:35)

In his commentary on the above verse, the Ramban connects between the commandment “you shall support him” and that of “… so that your brother may live with you” (ibid. 25:36) by referring to the notion of piku’ach nefesh – saving a life, one of the most important values in Judaism. 

“The words ‘so that your brother may live with you’ teach us that there is a positive commandment to sustain him.  In fact, the mitzvah of piku’ach nefesh is learned from these very words, as is written in Midrash Torat Kohanim (portion 5:3) on the verse ‘so that your brother may live with you’.”

In other words, the Ramban draws a line between the verse in our portion and the verse from which the mitzvah of piku’ach nefesh is initially learned (Vayikra 18:5): “You shall therefore keep My statutes, and Mine ordinances, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” 

The Talmud[1] relates the words of the Amoraic scholar Shmuel, who said: “He shall live by them and he shall not die by them.”  The Ramban, in turn, takes the word vechai (“and he shall live”), which appears in both the verse that teaches us about the mitzvah of piku’ach nefesh (vechai bahem), as well as in the verse in our own portion, which appears in the commandment to support one’s brother who has fallen into poverty (vechai achicha imach) – and draws an analogy between the two cases, based on the common word: vechai

It is the Ramban’s contention that supporting one who has fallen into poverty, is, in essence, an act of saving a life because giving support to such a person is the practical expression of “the positive commandment to sustain him”, which is a notch higher than upholding him. 

The Ramban interprets support as the physical maintenance of the needy, providing him with sufficient means to allow him to live reasonably. However, such support cannot come at the expense of the supporter’s wellbeing. 

Moving forward in time from the exegesis of the Middle Ages to that of modern times, we come across the fascinating words of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch[2] on the verse in question.  Rabbi Hirsch starts with a meticulous analysis of the words “umata yado imach” (literally: “and his hand shall fall from you”), which prove to be significant in understanding the commandment of “you shall support him”. 

Thus says Rabbi Hirsch: “‘Umata yado imach‘ – in no other place do we find the root of mot (fall, fail) in relation to hand; it always comes in reference to foot or to a person.  If the verse [in our portion] had said umat imecha [“and he shall fall from you”] or, alternatively, umata raglo imecha [“his foot shall fall from you”], then the meaning would clearly be a description of the initial fall or failure to provide for himself.  In other words, the verse would have conveyed that his very existence is in danger, and so the purpose of any help would be to preserve this man’s existence.  But the verse says ‘umata yado imach‘.  This particular phrasing expresses a weakening of activity [bold in the original], the state of being unable to enhance productivity.”

It seems obvious to Rabbi Hirsch that this verse should not be read as a realistic description depicting the first stage of a fall which is soon to lead to dire economic difficulties.  Rather, the collocation of the word “fall” [mat] and “hand” [yad] denotes a changed state; what was once robust productivity has now become weak and unstable. 

For this very reason, Rabbi Hirsch goes on to say: “One must not wait for a complete economic downfall in order to give support. But even in the case of some degree of weakening, when a person lacks the resources to fully provide for himself as he was once able to, and only requires a little help in order to continue providing for himself and becoming fully independent – it is then that you must “support him” – vehechezakta bo – make sure he ‘remains strong’ [as is written in the Sifra]. So long as he keeps falling, he cannot be termed ‘strong’.” [Rabbi Hirsch continues to quote further from the Sifra, and then goes on to say]: “Is one obligated to keep on helping him even if such help “causes him to go astray” – i.e., leads the supported person to become lazy, relying on the fact that he will be continuously supported?  The answer to that lies in the word [from the verse] imecha [“with you”]: he must be helped until he is one with you, as independent as you.  In other words, it is your responsibility to support him in such manner that he is “with you”- in morals as well.”

Rabbi Hirsch tones down the case presented by the Torah to some degree – “And if your brother should become impoverished, and the hand he has with you shall fall” – and describes a reality in which the impoverished person is not somebody who is on the brink of an economic downfall or one who has suddenly become a pauper. 

Rather, we are talking of one who has always been able to support himself and his family, but at a given point in time “he lacks the resources to fully provide for himself.”  This explanation does not offer a precise definition for what it means to be lacking the resources.  Is this a case of a physical inability to provide for oneself induced by external factors (the person has lost his job; the crops failed due to a plague or pest; COVID); or perhaps the problem is a subjective one (the person is uneducated; there is a physical problem; tiredness; mental fatigue)?

Despite the unclarity in this regard, Rabbi Hirsch’s message still sounds loud and clear: society may not claim that it tried to help the person once, and henceforth the person is on his own.  We have a moral obligation to help the individual regain his previous status, until such time when he and the society in which he lives are once again on equal footing.

Rabbi Hirsch explains what is meant by “he lacks the resources” later in his commentary, with reference to the next verse in the portion (Vayikra 25:36), and also expounds on his social and ethical doctrine in this matter.

“Any advancement made in his [one who needs help] life or any mission fulfilled by him are also connected to you, your life, your advancement.  You do not live for yourself alone; you do not procure anything for your benefit only.  Truth be told, you must first take care of yourself, which means you must procure the means that will enable you to fulfill your life’s calling.  However, this [helping others] is also a part of that calling.  Thus, you must also procure the means that will enable you to help your brother.  Since you and he belong to one and the same society, it is your obligation to help him fulfill his own calling.  His life is intertwined with your life.  And it is this that makes you a nation.  Neither social coerci
on nor taxes imposed by any human nor the colossal fear of revolutions – none of these unite you and turn you into a nation.  Only the recognition that one is bound by the word of God, and that the fear of God guides our every step – this is what connects us and turns us into a nation.  This is the strongest knot; this is the eternal connection expressed by mutual assistance and kindness…”

It is my understanding that in his explanation of the term – “the means that will enable you” – Rabbi Hirsch is mainly referring to a way of life which includes formal education and professional training that enable one to work and provide for oneself sufficiently. 

The interpretation Rabbi Hirsch gives to the concept of mutual assistance is rather revolutionary.  In his opinion, mutual assistance means helping the other person find his own life path; enabling him to advance and learn a profession that will make him self-sufficient.  Only this type of mutual assistance can create a worthy society.

There is no point in providing one-time financial assistance or offering a superficial solution or giving temporary aid.  This is not what is termed mutual assistance; rather, this is a patronizing attitude which can only serve to perpetuate dependency. 

Instead, one must try and break this vicious circle of economic dependence by finding a core solution, even if it takes longer to implement. 

It seems to me that the centers for vocational training, which were quite common in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, are the practical implementation of Rabbi Hirsch’s ethical doctrine and his vision for an ideal Jewish society.

May we be so worthy as to fulfill our life’s calling, which includes not only our own personal aspirations, but also that of our Jewish brethren who live with us.

As already mentioned above, in the scope of this little piece, I don’t feel I am able to offer practical solutions for the questions posed.  My main grief is that some of the laws we have today have been displaced and uprooted, in that they are perceived as absolute prohibitions imposed upon us, and, as such, have lost their immanent beauty.  Nevertheless, I continue to hope and pray that we find the proper way to keep observing the customs and traditions of our fathers, while infusing them with new life. 

[1]  Babylonian Talmud, tractate of Yoma, 85:2.

[2]  The Rabbinical leader of German orthodoxy in the 19th century (1808-1888).

Shabbat Shalom!


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