To See or Not to See
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
"If there will among you a needy person from one of your brothers within any
of your gates, in the land which Hashem your G-d is giving you, you should
not act obstinately, or close your hand to your needy brother. Rather, you
should certainly open your hand to him, and lend to him on pledge
sufficient for his need that he lacks." (Devarim 15:7-8)
This posuk seems relatively straightforward, addressing some of the most
important issues of any civilized society. Even in the ideal days of the
Torah back in the desert, when G-d directly took care of every Jew, the
discrepancy between those who have and those who have not was dealt with
head on. The solution was for the fortunate to help out the less fortunate,
and Rashi explains just how far this social responsibility goes:
"If there will among you a needy person ... The most needy have preference from one of your brothers ... a brother from your father has preference
over a brother from your mother ... within any of your gates, in the land
... the poor of one's city has preference over the poor of another city ... you should not act obstinately ... There are people who painfully
deliberate whether they should give or not, therefore it states "you should
not act obstinately," and there are people who stretch out their hand
[ready to give] but then close it, therefore it states ... or close your
hand to your needy brother.
Rather, you should certainly open your hand to
him ... many times,
and lend to him on pledge ... If he does not want a gift, then give it to him as a loan ...
sufficient for his need (dei
machsoro)...You are not commanded to make him wealthy ...
that he lacks
(asher yechsar lo) ... even with a horse to ride on and a slave to run
before him (if that is what he was previously accustomed to and now feels
the lack of them) ... [You must] even [help him to get] a wife.
It is hard to imagine an entire society functioning this way. An elaborate
system of welfare is one thing, and a major thing at that. However, "even
with a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him " because that is
what he was used to before he fell from grace? The following is the
language of the Shulchan Aruch, based upon this week's posuk:
How much should be given to the poor? Dei machsoro asher yechsar lo ...
How is that? If he is starving, feed him. If he needs clothing, clothe him.
If he needs items for his house, buy him those items for his house. Even if
he was used to riding on a horse with a slave running ahead of him while he
was rich, and now he is poor, buy him the horse and the slave-each man
according to his needs. If he was used to receiving bread, give him bread.
If he was used to receiving dough, give him dough. If he was used to having
a bed, give him a bed. One fitting to receive hot bread should continue to
receive hot bread; cold bread, cold bread. If he was fed into his mouth,
feed him in his mouth. If he came to get married, rent a house for him,
prepare a bed for him and house utensils, and find him a wife. (Yorah
The Rema, however, qualifies the above halachah:
"It seems that this is the responsibility of the Gabbai-Tzedakah (the ones
appointed over the community-collected money to be dispensed to the poor),
or the community as a whole; an individual is not obligated to give another
"sufficient for his need," but rather, his responsibility is to make it
known to the public that this person is suffering. If there isn't a public
body to deal with the situation, then the individual should give according
to whatever he can afford."
The Be'er Heitav adds as well:
"The Bach wrote that even an individual is obligated to give 'sufficient
for his need' if he can afford it, like it said previously in 249:1, and
the proof is from Hillel the Elder, who gave to a poor person a fine horse
to ride on, etc. However, the Shach says that this is not a proof, since
there may not have been a community there, or the community may not have
been able to help the poor person."
It is amazing how much the actual halachah remains true to the intent of
the original posuk, perhaps going beyond it as well. However, one can't
help but wonder, "Does this not open the door to terrible corruption?" Ask
any charitable wealthy person today, and he will tell you about the long
line of "poor" people who have queued up outside his front door for a
"handout" of some sort ... several times of year. And in Jerusalem, they
speak about "poor" people who make more money through tzeddakah than many
do who work eight-hour days! (Tax-free, too!)
Though the above is true, perhaps, the real truth is that there are many
people who sincerely need the help-lots of it-many of whom are too proud to
even ask for it. Unfortunately, as always, corrupt individuals have ruined
it for those who authentically require the assistance, either in the form
of a gift or a loan. Yet, because of financial stress, many families are
falling apart, breaking up, and disappearing altogether.
Personally, I know of an organization that helps rebuild broken families,
or helps them to avoid becoming one. However, it has such difficulty
raising the necessary funds to help them; answering machines take the
calls, and people never call back. Often, the situation seems hopeless.
"And the amazing thing is," a woman in desperate need of help told me,
"there is so much money out there in the Jewish world alone ..." doing
exactly that-remaining out there! Perhaps this is why the Torah finishes
off by saying:
... Lest he cries to Hashem against you, and it becomes a sin for you. You
must certainly give to him, and your heart must not be grieved when you
give to him, because for this, Hashem your G-d will bless you in all of
your work, and in all that your hand accomplishes. For, the needy shall
never cease from the land ... (Devarim 15:9-11)
It is a hard mitzvah to do, and an even harder mitzvah to do right. But it
wasn't called "tzedakah" for nothing (from the word "tzedek" which means
righteousness), and, as the Talmud says:
Jerusalem will be redeemed only through tzedakah. (Shabbos 139a)
"Keep the month of Aviv, and observe the Passover to Hashem your G-d,
because in the month of Aviv Hashem your G-d took you out of Egypt at night
... Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, poor man's bread, because
you left Egypt in haste ... (Devarim 16:1-3)
This may not seem like the time of year to discuss the holiday of Pesach,
but if the parshah does, why can't we?
If you ask the average Jew, "Why do we eat matzah on the fifteenth day of
Nissan at the Seder?" he would quote you the Haggadah, which quotes the
posuk: because we left Egypt in haste, and therefore lacked the necessary
time to bake bread, as it says:
They baked the dough which they took out of Egypt, matzah cakes which did
not leaven, because the Egyptians sent them out and they could not delay
... (Shemos 12:39)
The age-old question is, why could we not delay?
The answer given has been quoted for generations now, and seems to make
sense, at least at first: because had we stayed in Egypt any longer, then
we would have ceased to exist as a nation worthy of being saved. This is
based upon the Midrash that states that when the Ten Plagues began, the
Jewish people had reached the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity. Thus
was the effect of living among the heavily immoral Egyptian people for 209
years! And, had we stayed even one moment longer, we would have fallen to
the 50th level, the spiritual point of no-return, right?
Yes, and no.
First of all, according to Kabbalah, there is no fiftieth level of
spiritual impurity (according to some, the Arizal says that there is, but
Kabbalists point out that there is no written source in the Arizal for
this), for Kabbalistic reasons. Furthermore, that spiritually vulnerable
state was what the Jewish people had reached just prior to the beginning of
the plagues; by the time they had to leave Egypt, they had long been pulled
out from those depths.
This is what the Talmud means when it states:
The sun that heals the righteous judges the evil. (Nedarim 9b)
In other words, says the Pri Tzaddik, each plague that humbled the
Egyptians simultaneously spiritually "cured" the defiled nation of Israel,
in preparation for leaving Egypt. After all, it was not the Jewish people
who sought out Pharaoh the night they were supposed to leave Egypt; it was
Pharaoh who begged the Jewish people to leave. (Even cheder children sing
about Pharaoh roaming the streets of Egypt in his pajamas looking for Moshe
and Aharon.) According to the Seforim HaKedoshim, Pharaoh sensed the
weakening of evil in creation, the result of a revelation of a highly
The upshot of this is that the "haste" referred to in the posuk was imposed
upon us by Pharaoh, not a need to escape spiritual oblivion. If anyone was
facing annihilation on the 15th of Nissan, 2448, it was Pharaoh and the
Egyptian people. And had the Jewish people been ready for the Final
Redemption, then we would not have left so quickly, and Pharaoh and the
evil he represented would have ended then and there.
Seven days you shall celebrate a festival to Hashem your God in the place
that Hashem will choose, because Hashem your God will bless you in your
produce and the work of your hands, only be happy! (Devarim 16:15)
"According to its plain meaning this is not an expression of command but
expresses an assurance, i.e., you will be happy. However, according to the
halachic interpretation, they derived from here that the night before the
last day of the holiday is to be included in the obligation of rejoicing."
Rashi is referring to Shemini Atzeres. Elsewhere, Rashi explains:
What is the source? The rabbis taught: Only be happy! (Devarim 16:15).
(i.e. what is the source to say that one must rejoice on Shemini Atzeres
... Because it is not written outright, rather, 'The holiday of Succos you
shall celebrate ... ' and places 'only be happy' in close proximity.)
It is always interesting to note such nuances. All the other holidays the
Torah speaks about openly, clearly defining what the commandments of the
day are. Yet, when it comes to Shemini Atzeres, we have to look for hints
to find out how to celebrate this day! Why the difference?
This is in keeping with what Rashi says elsewhere, and the Shem M'Shmuel
speaks out in much detail. As much as Shemini Atzeres follows on the heels
of Succos, it is not part of Succos but a holiday unto itself. It has
different mitzvos, and we say a "Shechiyanu" at candle-lighting and
Kiddush. However, the most important difference lies in the meaning it has
to the Jewish people as a symbol of their unique relationship with God.
For seven days throughout the week of Succos, sacrifices were not only
brought on behalf of the Jewish people, but on behalf of all the nations of
the world as well. However, on Shemini Atzeres, sacrifices were brought
only for the Jewish people. The Talmud likens it to a king who made a feast
for many friends, but after they all left, he said to his closest friend,
"Please, stay, and celebrate with me one more day, without the others!"
Until Moshiach's time, the special relationship between God and the Jewish
people is not always visible and proveable, even to Jews themselves! The
Holocaust is a case in point. Sometimes it seems as if that "special
relationship" is noticeable only to those strong enough to sing, "You have
chosen us from among the nations ..." while walking toward gas chambers.
They were not claiming to feel joy at that moment, but faith in the
knowledge that all the suffering will one day be replaced with intense joy
in the presence of the A-lmighty.
Perhaps this is why the joy of Shemini Atzeres is hidden and only alluded
to, as if to say, the joy of that special relationship can be felt at
times, and at other times, it is a matter of faith. Like the moon, Jewish
history waxes and wanes, and the Jewish people have both shone and been
eclipsed, left in total darkness and loneliness.
However, by being attached to Succos, Shemini Atzeres also tells us that,
just as the joy of Succos is revealed and consistent, one day the joy of
Shemini Atzeres and the eternal relationship with the Holy One it
symbolizes, will also be revealed and enjoyed-forever. At that time, God's
master plan will make sense to all of us, and we too will be able rejoice
in all that has occurred.
Three times a year all the males shall appear before Hashem your God in the
place that He will choose ... (Devarim 16:16)
This posuk discusses the mitzvah to make sure that, on the holidays when
males ascended to the Temple from all over Israel, they did not come
empty-handed. It is an obligation to come to the Temple with a Korban
Re'iah, a "sacrifice of seeing."
It is a fitting end to a parshah that began with the concept of "seeing."
Part ot Judaism is to see, and part of it is to be seen. The first part
refers to fear of God, which means developing a sophisticated perspective
on life that allows you to see the hand of God in every detail of life. The
latter refers to making sure to be "seen" in the right places at the right
time, by God Himself.
In a sense, these two points represent two extremes of Torah life. "Seeing"
is a personal thing, something that is often best achieved at moments we
are reflective-and alone. Other people tend to distract us, and we tend to
be influenced-even when we don't want to be-by the perspective of others.
Alone, we have time and the presence of mind to confront our own thoughts
and see what we believe.
However, "to be seen" often means being somewhere, and with other people,
for example, in shul on Rosh Hashanah. At such a time, it is important to
be part of the collective body of the Jewish people, to be part of the
Klal. This is why all the prayers tend to be in the plural.
To be a complete Jew is to walk the tightrope and balance both worlds. Then
we can maintain our personal perspectives while at the same time
maintaining a firm position with the overall community. It is not an easy
task, but then again, whoever said life was supposed to be?