A firm, yet timid knock on the door - the front door. Grumbling under one's breath, one quickly contemplates the possibilities of whom it may be and comes to the conclusion that a knock on the front door means one of two things, both usually undesirable.
A firm, yet timid knock on the door - the front door. Grumbling under one's breath, one quickly contemplates the possibilities of whom it may be and comes to the conclusion that a knock on the front door means one of two things, both usually undesirable. Waiting on the porch is either the brash and unflinching salesman, determined to sell me everything I don't need, or the all too common presence of the tattered bearded man, brandishing a strange accent and requesting the services of my checkbook. Next, a call from the synagogue, requesting a large sum of money for yet another needy person and yet another desperate cause. The thought "again?" reverberates through one's brain.
How many times have we opened the door to the pauper with a ready sigh and anything but the hint of a smile on our faces? How often have we sat him down, told him to wait a minute, forgotten to offer him drink and meal, or made him feel uncomfortable and ill-at-ease? After all, we tell ourselves, all he really wants is some money, and we're doing him a big favor as it is. How often after the all-too familiar call from the synagogue have we excerpted our checkbooks from the clench of our pocketbooks and, with the expression of one at gunpoint, etched the portentous numbers. As the hard-earned money is engraved into the paper, one cannot help but thinking, "Maybe that's a little too much." As the number is changed, one justifies, "It's my money after all, isn't it?"
Reading through this week's Torah portion, the endless list of korbanot (sacrifices) and their detailed laws seem irrelevant to modern man, devoid of depth and applicability, especially since we are without Temple and altar. But, if we examine the portion closely through the eyes of our sages, we'll find that the gems anxiously await us, ready to be gleaned. The Torah states regarding the korban mincha (meal offering) that it must be baked and then broken into small pieces before it is burned on the altar (Leviticus 6:14). The commentators point out that although we never find such a command by other meal offerings, since this meal offering was brought by the poor members of Israel who could not afford the extravagances of proffering cows and sheep, Hashem is especially concerned that their honor not be slighted. Since, when broken into pieces, the offering would appear more substantial, the indigent man would not be embarrassed by the minuteness of the flour brought.
Similarly, we are told with regard to another of the poor man's sacrifices, namely the bird offering, that the Kohanim (priests) were commanded to burn it on the altar with its feathers still attached. Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, comments that although there is no stench as putrid as the singeing of feathers, due to the feathers the sacrifice would not be consumed instantly as a result of its smallness, which would have caused a twinge of sorrow in the poor man's heart. With subtle force, Hashem commands us that it is better that we seemingly waste our time breaking the flour into pieces and bear the foul odor of poverty, than cause the slightest pain or discomfort to the already dejected heart.
Furthermore, the Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 67b) states that if the poor man should refuse your charity, we are required to offer him a loan, and when he defaults we should change the loan to a gift. How sensitive we must be not to force him to take the charity and thereby be forced to be grateful and facetious for our kindness. We must swallow our pride and make him feel that he is receiving no special favor.
The Talmud relates a story which explains to what lengths we must go to avoid causing the slightest embarrassment to our unfortunate brothers. The great sage Mar Ukva and his wife used to deposit daily four zuz on the doorstep of a particular poor man, unbeknownst to the receiver. One day, when the poor man sought to discover the identity of his benefactor, he chased after Mar Ukva and his wife after their daily visit. Rather than allow the poor man to discover their identity, which would cause them to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, Mar Ukva and his wife escaped their pursuer by jumping into a fiery furnace where they were miraculously saved. The Talmud then matter-of-factly points out that it is better that one should enter a burning oven than embarrass someone in public. The Maharal, a leading Torah scholar and philosopher of the 16th century, explains that just like fire consumes all physical things, embarrassment demolishes the inner spiritual self with its crushing dejection and feelings of worthlessness. Better that the physical be completely destroyed than the spiritual self and worth be decimated. How wary we must be in our dealings with our indigent brethren!
Other great dangers of charity include the natural feelings of pride at our graciousness, the feeling that the poor owes us gratitude for our kindness, and conversely, the reluctance of relinquishing our hard-earned funds. We must realize that it is our privilege to have the ability to give, our most precious right to spread our wealth to those who desperately need it. In the words of the Talmud, "Give while you still have, while the poor man is still before you, and you are still alive" (Tractate Shabbat 151b). Who knows if one will have the precious opportunity again.
On a practical level, the Talmud states that "one who wishes to make his money last should dispense freely of it." As the Maharal explains, if one is blessed with wealth, Hashem constantly examines the person to determine if he is truly deserving of such blessing from Heaven. Only if Hashem sees that one is using the money for good purposes and copying the ways of Hashem, the ultimate Sustainer of Mankind, will He allow the individual to retain his financial security.
As the charities of the world approach us, we must realize that Hashem is bringing us the penultimate opportunity to follow in His ways. Just as He is an everlasting spring of goodness and blessing to the world, we too can open the floodgates of our belongings and help support the world around us. How foolish it would be to bring our brothers, who already suffer from downtrodden hearts, any anguish or embarrassment, when they provide us with such tremendous opportunity. Even if we cannot afford to provide for the indigent's needs, better that we encounter the furnace than cause him pain. Just as Hashem commands the Kohen (priest) to bear the foul smell, we must treat the poor person with the respect of a special creation of Hashem, and ignore the accompanying lack of couth or cleanliness. May we all merit to travel the long road to Hashem's eternal blessings, laden down with the luggage of our good deeds.
Ranon Cortell, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.
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