Parashat B'har

Responding Swiftly To Need

Charity is rooted in our understanding that those who need our help are indeed our brothers.

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Rashi is specific about the process implied by the Torah's imagery: As soon as a person's hand begins to slip, Rashi tells us, you must grab hold of him and not let him fall any further, because, if he does, it will be much harder to raise him up. Rashi illustrates the Torah's understanding of this process with an interesting parable. If a mule is carrying a load, as long as the load is balanced on the mule's back, it takes only one person to steady it, and make sure it doesn't fall off. Once the load has fallen to the ground, however, even five people will have trouble lifting it up again.

According to Rashi, the message is clear--we are called upon by the Torah to be sufficiently sensitive to our brother (to be "with" him) so as to be in a position to notice if he is "slipping," even the slightest bit, financially. Just as the mule driver keeps his hand on the load, the good "brother" is in touch with his fellow's situation. And, just as the mule driver will immediately respond with a slight adjustment when the load begins to slip, we are also called upon to respond, with an interest-free loan, if our "brother" begins to drop the financial ball.

The Torah, as Rashi explains it, understands what the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not. To allow a person to slip and fall, to lose everything before we are willing to help him, is a perversion of the central interaction of charity.

In Jewish law, the mitzvah, commandment, to help others is rooted in the other's being a brother. This, the Torah stresses, is a status we grant to "strangers and sojourners" as well; anyone who is "with" us is our brother. It is precisely this relationship--his being a "brother," "with you," that at one and the same time triggers the obligation to help him, gives us the ability to help him, and defines the parameters of the help we must give him.

Only if I am close to my fellow and his situation, "with" him, only if I am sensitive to the slightest threat to his financial well-being, can I take the necessary, and, at this early stage, still small steps to help him in time, before it becomes a major problem. My closeness and sensitivity to him, and my commitment to maintaining that closeness, are precisely what enable me to quickly and efficiently respond to his needs, and make sure that he doesn't go from being my "brother" to becoming something else, something "other," something that lies on the ground, like the mule's load, beyond help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sees it in precisely the opposite way: Only when someone is no longer "with" us, when he has been reduced to something other than a "brother," an equal, and has become something that we can classify as deviant, needy, not "with" us, will we help him. As long as he is a "brother"--a home-owner, not on the street, not impoverished--we will not help him. We will, perversely, wait until he is reduced to the status of an "other," a "non-brother" and only then will we help him.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.