"If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden you heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs." (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
In several verses preceding this one (Deut. 15:4-5), the Israelites are told that there will be no needy people among them if they heed God's commandments. "If, however" they do not heed God's instructions, then there will be needy people and it will be the Israelites' responsibility to provide for them.
Taking responsibility for the welfare of other people is a commandment that is repeated many times throughout the Torah. It is also a perpetual obligation. The term tzedakah, which is often incorrectly translated as "charity," comes from the word tzedek, meaning "righteousness" or "justice." Tzedakah requires us to always try to act justly and do what is right. The instruction to "open your hand..." applies even during times of financial difficulty, because "He who closes his ears to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard" (Proverbs 21:13).
In Biblical thought, the heart -- not the mind -- was considered to be the source of each person's intellectual, moral, and spiritual life. It was the organ that determined one's behavior. Hardening the heart is an indication that one is both unresponsive to reason and incapable of compassion. A hard heart can also indicate arrogance towards people or situations.
Giving unwillingly is the lowest form of giving, as described in Maimonides "Eight Levels of Tzedakah" (Yad Hazakot, Matanot Aniyim 10:7-14). The other levels, from the lowest to the highest are: (7) giving less than one should, but cheerfully, (6) giving after one is asked, (5) giving before one is asked, (4) when the giver does not know the receiver, (3) when the receiver does not know the giver, (2) when both the giver and receiver are unknown to each other and (1) to help a person help himself so that he no longer needs tzedakah.
More Table Talk
- In the Book of Exodus, there are numerous references to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Many commentaries imply that the warnings not to harden our hearts are to remind us that if we do it once, we run the risk of doing it again and again. Each time will become easier until it becomes our normal way of dealing with others. Can you think of any times that you hardened your heart deliberately? Discuss why you did. How did it make you feel? Did you eventually "soften" your heart? Why or why not? According to Rashi, when giving tzedakah you must also consider the situation of the recipient and your relationship to them. The truly destitute are a greater the obligation than "brethren" or close relations; the poor in your city must be considered before the poor in other cities; those in Israel are considered before the poor in other lands. Do you agree with Rashi? Can you name any circumstances when your family made choices contrary to those suggested by Rashi? Discuss how your family decides where to give tzedakah and how you respond to crises as they occur in your community, throughout the United States and in other lands, including Israel.
- "Do not harden your heart..." refers to feelings. "Open your hand..." refers to actions. Ideally, actions should be reflective of one's feelings and attitudes. Reread Maimonides eight Levels of Tzedakah as described in the INTERPRETATION section above. Describe the feelings and attitudes that you feel might accompany each action at every stage. Bava Batra 9a states "No one becomes poor from giving charity". What do you think this means? What does this suggest about connection between feelings and actions? What do you get out of giving?
- Bava Batra 9b states "Whoever gives the smallest coin to the poor is blessed with 6 blessings, but whoever comforts them with kinds words receives 11 blessings". Ben Sirach 18:16 says "Shall not the dew lessen the heat? So is a kind word better than a gift." These quotes imply that there are more ways to give tzedakah than simply giving money. They also imply that there are other ways that people can be "poor", even if they have sufficient money. Do think it is easier to give money or to say kind things to people? Why? Name a recent circumstance when you've said something kind to someone. Give examples of when people have said kind words to you and how those words made you feel. Are there certain times when you wish that members of your family would say kind things to you? Discuss opportunities to express kindness to one another.
Why not try... selecting a local organization for your family to become involved with by giving tzedakah in all forms - donating and/or raising money, spending time working, teaching people new skills, writing letters, etc.