This week’s Parashah outlines the planning for the construction of a portable sanctuary as a “home” – so to speak – for Hashem amidst the people of Israel. The Mishkan – as it was called – was built with materials donated by the people enthusiastically and wholeheartedly. Our sages often expound on the greatness of the mitzvah of tzedakah – giving charity – when learning this section of the Torah.
The Ben Ish Hai zt’l, Rabenu Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, reveals an important insight as to the nature and benefits charity offers. Once there was a man who lived in a small town who supported himself by selling wine to the townspeople. He did so honestly and diligently for many years and was able to support his family comfortably. Unfortunately, another wine merchant moved to town and opened his own store for business. The newcomer was quick to learn that the town was not large enough to support two wine stores and he began to plot as to how to steal the local merchant’s loyal customers. His plan was ingenious. Right before the busy season of Purim and Pesah he hired two men to go sit in the local coffee shop and talk “innocently” about the problems the local merchant was suffering.
“Who would believe that poor Reuben’s wine would start to go sour and turn to vinegar right before the holidays? I don’t know how he is going to survive”, said the first hired actor.
“I don’t know what he is going to do – and – although I feel bad for him I cannot take a chance of being without wine for the Seder and so I think I am going to go buy from the new store that opened in town”, replied the second stooge.
After they had repeated their act in several well populated establishments and meeting places most of the town heard and believed Reuben’s problem and they started to flock to the new merchant’s store. Reuben, in the meantime, could not understand why no one was buying at this usually busy time of the year.
At that time a strange skin disease started to spread throughout the town. People had boils and itchy patches all over their bodies. No one could relieve the townspeople’s suffering until a specialist from the capital arrived and diagnosed a rare skin malady that could only be cured by soaking the affected areas in wine vinegar. Where could a small town get enough wine vinegar to treat so many people? Everyone rushed to Rueben’s wine shop and demanded that he sell his vinegary wine.
“I don’t have any vinegar”, he protested, “I only have fine kosher wine”.
“Don’t make us take it violently”, demanded the angry crowd, “We’ll pay you double the price of wine for your spoiled wares.”
Although Reuben continued to deny the people’s claim they persisted in their demands. Frustrated he opened a spigot in one of his barrels and said, “Here, taste this it is fine wine not vinegar”. But the first sip revealed that it was in fact vinegar not wine. The people lined up and paid a hefty sum for the vinegar that only Reuben had in stock.
Explains Rabenu Yosef Hayim, – such is the nature of charity. It has great power not only to remove a problem but also has the unique ability to transform the bad itself into the benefit. The word for plague or disease in Hebrew is “nega”.
If you jumble those same letters you get the word ‘oneg” – pleasure. That is the power of charity – to not only save a person by removing a danger or a problem but also to transform that same plague into a pleasure. To turn it upside town. To make an about face. Knowing this secret should encourage us all to increase our acts of charity and may Hashem save us all from those who would seek to harm us.