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Parshat Re'eh (5762)
This week's section contains fifty four commandments, and one of them is to give Charity.
In some ways Charity is the most important of all G-d's commandments. In the Jerusalem Talmud it is called simply 'The Commandment' ('HaMitzva') and in many places (especially the classic book 'Tanya') it is explained that charity is the only way to bring Moshiach (true Jewish Messiah) and save the entire world.
At first glance this is not understood. Why is charity so important? Isn't being poor the will of the Almighty? After all, G-d creates everything constantly and NOTHING happens by accident, even poverty. Even more; there are many spiritual reasons that it's GOOD to be poor, for instance poverty erases sins done in this or previous lifetimes, teaches humility and more.
So maybe instead of giving alms we should teach the poor to ACCEPT poverty as it says in the 'Ethics of the Fathers' (4:1) "Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot!" Why is it so important to try to change G-d's will and give charity?
To help understand, here is a story.
When the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe (Shalom Dovber) was just a child, his father (Rebbe Shmuel) woke him one morning and asked him if he had dreamed anything. The boy thought for a minute, began trembling with fear and answered yes. He explained that he had just dreamt that he saw several awesomely holy men one of whom told him a Torah idea and a story.
When he described the men his father identified the one who spoke as the Baal Shem Tov.
The boy went on to relate; "The Torah idea he said was "In Ethics of the Fathers it says 'Who is mighty? He who conquers his selfish inclination.' (4:1)
And the Baal Shem Tov explained: "The reason it says 'conquers' and not BREAKS, is because it requires more might to conquer, and transform our negative energy than to break or mortify it."
And the story the Baal Shem Tov told was to explain this was:
"When I was a young man of twenty, recently after being accepted as a member of the hidden Tzadikim [The hidden Tzadikim were a group of unusually gifted, learned and holy Jews who, disguised as simple people, dedicated their lives to improving the plight of their Jewish brethren both spiritually and physically] several of us came to the city of Brody.
"It was there I saw the most amazing thing. I was standing in the market place speaking to a large group of locals when I noticed from the corner of my eye an older man walking in the distance, bent under the burden of a large sack he was carrying on his shoulder. His face was covered with sweat and there was nothing unusual about him except for the fact that over his head floated a brilliant pillar of spiritual fire!
"Obviously none of the other townspeople saw it. A few of them even yelled jeeringly 'Keep going Hershel-Goat' and 'Carry, Hershel, Carry!' And he yelled back with a smile 'Thanks! G-d bless you!'
"I could not believe my eyes. I called over two of the elder Tzakikim who were with me, Rav Yechezkel and Rav Efriam. They also saw the pillar, but also couldn't explain it; for all appearances this Hershel was just a simple old Jew trying to make a living, what connected him to such a great revelation?
"For several days I observed him whenever possible in order to understand what merit he had to bring this fire, but to no avail. I asked the townspeople about him and was told that he was a widower with no children; his wife died some ten years ago. He earned his meek living by carrying things and doing odd jobs. And as far as everyone knew he used all his money to feed a few goats that he owned because he loved goat's milk. That's why they called him Hershel Goat. But I couldn't understand how he merited to that pillar of fire.
"So I decided to fast the first three days of each week, only drinking water at night, until I had the answer.
"I had just finished the first set of three days and was leaving the Shul (Synagogue) when by Divine providence, there was Hershel walking down the street and when he saw me he smiled a big smile.
"I told him I was very weak from the fast and asked if he could give me something to eat. 'Of course! Of course!' He said joyously as though he was expecting me to ask. "Please, just follow me to my home! I'm so happy to help.'
"We walked for about an hour till we came to an old run-down hut at the edge of the woods. Nothing seemed unusual until he opened the door and entered. Suddenly four or five goats jumped from all corners of the house at him. They lovingly licked his hands and literally pranced with joy. I had never quite seen the likes of it. Hershel quieted the goats, told me to sit down, took out a large metal vessel, milked one of them and gave me to drink.
"'Nothing healthier than goat's milk!' he said with satisfaction as he handed me a second glassful.
"But when I tried to pay him he refused, 'G-d forbid! Money? No! No money, no money! It's my pleasure! I'm the one that benefits! What, I should take money too?' he said with a smile on his face.
"Then he looked at me seriously and said, 'I want to tell you a true story. You have no idea how happy I am that you came here. Please listen.' He sat down opposite me, waiting a few moments to collect his thoughts, and then began.
"'My wife, of blessed memory was a real Tzadekis (righteous woman), always helping people. Any time anyone needed anything she was there doing everything she could to help. She collected money for the poor, cared for people when they were sick; everything she did was for others. About ten years ago she passed away and seven days later, after the seven days of mourning, she appeared to me in a dream.
"'She told me that after she died, instead of going through the painful and frightening purification processes of 'the slingshot' and 'trashing' of the grave, she was received warmly by the souls of all those she had helped and taken directly to one of the highest heavens.
"'She told me that nothing is valued in heaven more than brotherly love and beseeched me to also begin a life of charity and good deeds. So that is why I bought these goats; since that time I give free milk to whoever needs it and it has done wonders for people, simply wonders, and I am so happy I can help.
"This was ten years ago. Since then my wife never appeared to me again. But this morning, just before I woke up, she came. She told me that today I would meet a holy man and he would change my life, and I'm sure she was talking about you. Please stay by me for a few days and teach me Torah. I don't want anything, not in this world or the next, except to learn Torah. But....I don't even know how to read! Please stay.'
"I stayed by Hershel for several days and watched the way he lovingly cared for his goats and how he brought their milk to tens of people that needed it. Everything done with a simple, contagious joy and with no egotism whatsoever. But on the other hand he was a complete ignoramus and could barely read.
"I spoke it over with the Tzadikim and we decided to take him under our wing and teach him Torah. For three years we taught him the most basic books and then one day his mind simply opened. He suddenly understood and remembered everything we taught him, even the most difficult concepts in Talmud and in Kabala, but he never lost his simplicity.
"After five more years he became a great hidden Tzadik and mystic in his own right, moved to the city of Ostripol and for the next ten years helped and even saved hundreds of Jews with his prayers and blessings.
"But the story has a strange ending. As fate would have it, Hershel passed away on a cold, miserable, rainy day and the burial society of Ostripol barely found ten Jews to escort him to his final resting place and only with the greatest difficulty. And this was not received well in heavens.
"There a decree was passed that, because of their mistreatment of Hershel, the city of Ostripol should suffer terrible misfortunes.
"I and the other Tzadikim; tried to avert the decree, but to no avail; it seems that disgracing a Tzadik is no small matter. All our supplications, prayers and fasting had no effect. Things really looked bad until, suddenly, the soul of Hershel's wife appeared before the heavenly court.
"All the accusing angels fell silent as she spoke. How could it be that the entire city of Ostripol would be punished because of her husband? Her husband had devoted his life to helping people. The biggest disgrace that could be done to him would be to cause anyone, no less an entire city, to suffer on his account. She demanded that the punishment be annulled.
"After short deliberation her demands were met. She accomplished what the efforts and prayers of the greatest, holiest Tzaddikim could not. "
This answers our questions.
True, G-d creates the world, nothing happens by accident and poor people are meant to be poor. But they aren't meant to stay that way; they are there for us to give them charity and improve their situation.
Similarly the entire world is poor; lacking joy, blessing and meaning, and it is in our hands to change it. In fact this is the theme and entire message of the Torah and the 'lot' that the Jewish people were given by G_d; to change world 'poverty' to wealth.
This is what the Ethics of the Fathers means about 'being happy with one's 'lot'. It is referring to this "lot' and duty of transforming the world and if it's done with happiness the result will be true richness.
This is the connection between the Baal Shem's Torah idea about the evil inclination and the story he told about charity:
The 'evil' inclination is synonymous with Selfishness".
Selfishness is the most severe form of poverty. It implies being completely void and unaware of the truth, goodness and kindness of G-d Almighty (Ain Oni Eleh b'Daas. Talmud Nedarim 41:a).
Transforming this type of poverty means; filling this void with joy and meaning and transforming 'darkness' to light.
And that is why Hershel merited to a pillar of fire, because his charity brought light, warmth and transformation of the world around him.
That is also why Charity will bring the Moshiach; because, as Maimonides declares at the end of his massive fourteen volume work, "Yad HaChazaka" the Moshiach will transform the world; there will be no hunger, war or poverty - because the world will be filled with the awareness of G-d.
In other words the entire accomplishment of Moshiach will be to give charity by filling all that is lacking in this spiritually and physically impoverished world.
It all depends on us to make it happen one second sooner; even one more good deed, word or even thought on our part can be the final act of charity that brings…
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