Re’eh: Hard Hearts and Tight Fists

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

Greetings from Newton Centre, your new center of internet Torah study!

Our hearts go out to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, so although there are
many
subjects in this week’s parsha, including blessings, curses, tithes, dietary
laws, prophecy,
and the holy days, it seems appropriate to focus on laws of giving to those in
need. In that
spirit, at the end of this email you’ll find some links to Jewish agencies
collecting money
for the relief effort.

On to the topic at hand: in Deuteronomy 15, we read a warning not to hold back
when
someone is in need:

“If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of
your
cities, in your land the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden
your heart, and
you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open
your hand
to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.

Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, `The seventh
year, the
year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and
not give
him, and he will cry out to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin to you.
You shall surely
give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because
of this
thing the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your
endeavors. ”

(Devarim/ Deuteronomy 15:7-10)

This text is not all that difficult to understand: it is a call to compassion
when we find
fellow citizens in need. The Torah understands that it is hard to part with a
hard earned
shekel, and uses evocative language (do not “harden your heart” – like Pharaoh?)
to stress
its ideal of generosity and loving-kindness in action. So far, so good.

Notice, in the second paragraph quoted above, the reference to the “seventh
year.” This is
the shmittah or “sabbatical” year, the seventh year when the land lies fallow
and debts are
forgiven (cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus chapter 25). This explains the Torah’s
particular warning
about holding back in the later years of the cycle: a needy person might need a
loan in the
fifth or sixth year, but the lender would be reluctant to make a loan which
would get
canceled shortly thereafter in the seventh year.

Such reluctance would be perfectly understandable, but the Torah’s ideal is to
give (or
loan) freely- and that’s not just good for the recipient. The verses I’ve quoted
above
repeatedly link our emotions to our material goods- you shall not “harden your
heart” and
not give, and you shall not think an “unfaithful” thought, and you shall not
“begrudge” a
person in need. In other words, the Torah knows that our possessions often
affect our
emotions- we become protective of our goods, letting sums and quantities and
material
goods rule our hearts. To put it another way: if our possessions are directing
our
emotions, then sacred principles aren’t.

That’s why we have so many commandments to give- not only because people are in
need,
but because without the commandment, we might hold on tightly, letting our fear
of
insufficiency overcome our compassion and generosity. We give not only to help
others,
but to help free ourselves from being overly attached to material things. We
give so that
we can come to understand that that lovingkindness – hesed- is the truest
treasure. When
we give freely, with no hardness of heart, we remove the barriers of fear which
block our
love for others. That’s why this passage about giving concludes “for because of
this thing
the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors. ”

Is there a greater blessing than exerting ourselves in the practice of loving
others? This is
what giving is: a blessing for the one in need, a blessing for the one who
gives, and a
blessing from God enacted through human hands.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

Tzedakah links:

To give to the hurricane relief efforts, you can donate to United Jewish
Communities, which
will distribute money to local agencies:

http://www.ujc.org/

The Conservative Movement has also set up a relief fund:

http://www.uscj.org/Hurricane_ReliefYou_6553.html

PS- as usual, you can read the entire weekly parsha and special haftarah: here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

PPS- The idea for this week’s study comes from something I read in a Torah
commentary
which I have now forgotten- but I think it was Yehuda Nachshoni’s “Studies in
the Weekly
Parsha.”

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