RABBI WAGENSBERG ON PARSHAS RE'EH
A topic well worth discussing is found in this week's portion. It says, "If there will be a destitute person among you, anyone of your brothers in any of your cities, in your land that HaShem your God gives to you, you may not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you must open your hand to him, etc..." (15:7-8).
Obviously, we are being told to fulfill the mitzvah of charity. However, the way in which the Torah describes this mitzvah is somewhat unique. It says that we must not "close our hands" but rather "open our hands" to the poor.
This is somewhat strange because there are many commandments in the Torah that require the usage of our hands. For example, the mitzvos of circumcision, returning a lost object or the taking of the four species on Succos. Yet, nowhere else does the Torah describe the act of the mitzvah in such detail. In all the other cases it suffices to say "circumcise," "return," and "take." We know on our own that they must be done by opening our hands and therefore there is no need to be so descriptive.
Why then, when it comes to charity, does HaShem feel it necessary to describe in detail how this mitzvah must be done? Let the verse just say "give" charity to the poor and we will know on our own that this requires the opening of the hand.
The Ben Ish Chai (Chasdei Avos, on Pikei Avos, 4:1) shares a novel approach as to why God created man in such a way that he has five fingers where the thumb is separated from the other four. He explains that the accumulation of monetary wealth is connected to the hand. After all, the verse says, "My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth" (Parshas Eikev, 8:17).
We also know that one should tithe one fifth of his earned income and keep four fifths to himself (Rebbi Ela'a, Kesuvos, chap. 4, "Na'ara Shenispateta", pg. 50a).
Therefore, the Ben Ish Chai explains, that man was engineered with specifically five fingers where the thumb is separated from the other four. This is to remind us that although we earn our living with our hands, nevertheless, one fifth, represented by the thumb, should be separated for the poor. The other four-fifths, represented by the other four fingers, may be kept for ourselves.
By tithing, we are reminded that it was not our cleverness or brilliance which made us wealthy, rather, it was HaShem Who provided us with our finances and He only asks that we give some of it to the poor.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that this would explain our descriptive verse. This is because when a person makes a fist, not only is the thumb not recognizably separate from the other four fingers, but it looks like it is attached to them. This would give the impression that one should keep all five fifths for himself, even the part that belongs to the poor.
A closed fist also represents strength which implies that we amassed our wealth by "the might of our hand" and not by the grace of God.
Therefore, the Torah says, "Do not close your hand" for that would be misleading. Rather, "Open your hand" so that you will see that HaShem fashioned the hand in just such a way that the thumb is separate from the other four fingers to remind us that Hashem put the money into our hands and therefore, one fifth of it belongs to the poor.
This, says the Ben Ish Chai, is the meaning behind the words, "Who is a rich person? One who is happy with his lot" (Pirkei Avos 4:1). Meaning, one should be happy with the four-fifths that God granted him. He should not be greedy to also devour the one-fifth that God set aside for the poor.
Considering the saying, "I give you a finger and you take a hand," I guess we could say the opposite, that God already gave us the hand, so we should not be grabbing the finger (thumb) also.
This explains why that Mishnah quotes the verse, "When you eat the labor of your 'hands' you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you" (Tehillim, 128:2). This comes to teach us that when we eat according to the hint found within the labor of our "hands," meaning, the one separated from the four, then we will be "praiseworthy" in this world.
Moreover, it says, "it will be good for us in the next world," meaning, that God will also reward us for this in the future. This is to say, that even though the fifth does not belong to us, but to the poor, nonetheless, God will reward us for the act of charity as if we have given away what was ours.
The Mitzvah of Tzedakah is so powerful that it hastens The Redemption (Baba Basra, chap. 1, "Hashutfin", pg. 10b; Yashaya, 56:1). So much so, that it says that Jerusalem will only be redeemed because of tzedakah (Ulah, Shabbos, chap. 20, "Tolin", pg. 139a) as it says, "Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through tzedakah" (Yeshaya, 1:27).
This fits in very nicely to the teaching of the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh (Parshas Re'eh, 15:7) who says that when our verse talks about "a destitute person", it is a reference to the Moshiach who is called destitute, as it says, "A poor man, riding on a donkey" (Zecharia, 9:9).
The Messiah is called poor because his wealth is measured by spreading spirituality. However, as long as he has not come, and we are in exile, incapable of serving God fully, we are considered spiritually poor.
So, when the Ohr HaChaim comments that the destitute person is the Messiah, it means to say that when there is a situation of poverty, financially and spiritually, then, give tzedakah to the financially poor, because then the Messiah will come and make us spiritually wealthier.
We could suggest that this week's portion is called Re'eh (see) because it implores us to "look around us" and see if there is anybody we could help. One of the ways we could help others is through the Mitzvah of Tzedakah. Let a day not go by where we did not give at least a little bit to help somebody else out. Let us not forget that by helping others, we are actually helping ourselves.
So, may we all be blessed to improve in our philanthropy, even a tiny bit more, and thus deserve to witness the downfall of our enemies which will usher in the time of our salvation when we will know of no more war or loss ever again!
Good Shabbos, Chodesh Tov, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg