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Torah Sparks

September 3, 2005 - 29 Av 5765

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 (Etz Hayim, p.1061; Hertz p.799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 11:26-12:28 (Etz Hayim, p.1061; Hertz p.799)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5 (Etz Hayim, p.1085; Hertz p.818)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, the fourth in the book. It coincides with the third of seven Shabbatotof Consolation that follow Tisha B'Av and precede Rosh Hashanah.


Re'eh begins Moshe's review of the laws given by God to the Israelites in preparation for their entering the Promised Land. After commanding them to perform the ritual of calling out blessings and curses after they enter the land, Moshe teaches them the following laws: 1) To destroy all pagan places and objects of worship, to worship God at one central cultic place, to follow only the true prophets of God, and to destroy all individuals and communities that seek to serve other gods. 2) The laws of keeping kosher and levitical tithes. 3) The laws concerning sabbatical years, supporting the poor, indentured servants, and offering firstborn animals to God. 4) The yearly holiday cycle.

The First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

If… there is a needy person among you… within one of your gates… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, open, you must open your hand and lend him enough for whatever he needs. Beware lest there be the base thought in your heart: "The seventh year of debt forgiveness is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. (15:7-9; Based upon translations by Jewish Publication Society and Professor Everett Fox)

  • From Sifre Devarim, (A work of legal Midrash on Deuteronomy attributed to the School of Rabbi Akiva, 2nd Century C.E.) - The words, "WITHIN ONE OF YOUR GATES" teach us that the poor of one's community take priority over the poor of another community.
  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, 31b - I only know that the Torah commands me to assist the poor of my own community. From where in the Torah do I derive the obligation to assist the poor of other communities as well? From the words, OPEN, YOU MUST OPEN YOUR HAND. The apparently superfluous use of the verb OPEN a second time teaches us that we open our hands to the poor of our community and to the poor of other communities (when we are able to assist both. For the Talmud, no word of the Torah is actually superfluous. What appears to be an unnecessary word is actually there to teach us something new.)
  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 68a - THE BASE THOUGHT IN YOUR HEART: Earlier on, the Torah referred to people who seduce others into idol worship as base people. (Deut. 13:14) (Comparing the use of the word BASE in both places) we conclude that just as those who lead others into idolatry are called base people, so too a person who harbors the base thought that he can get away with being stingy towards the poor is similar to an idol worshipper.
  • From Torah Temimah (Torah anthology and a commentary of Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, 1860-1942) - These verses of the Torah concerning not being stingy (prior to the seventh year of debt forgiveness) also teach us about the general rule of being generous to the poor in all circumstances. This comparison between stinginess and idol worship is based upon the idea that everything we own is only ours as a result of God's help. We give to others as a sign of our faith in this religious precept. The person who refuses to help the poor is like one who (arrogantly) rejects the belief in divine providence and assistance because he thinks that all he possesses he has gotten on his own. This is a form of idolatry.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why does the Sifre teach us to care for the poor of our own community first? What limits of social welfare might it be hinting at?
  2. Why not make magnitude of poverty the criterion for who gets help first rather than geographic proximity of the poor?
  3. In our global village, the crises of the world's poorest people can be witnessed on TV or the internet anytime. The needy people in our gates are now, potentially, everyone. How, then, do we determine who gets helps, how they get it and when they get it?
  4. The Talmud and Rabbi Epstein assert that stinginess towards the poor is a kind of idolatry. Jewish rules of philanthropy are based upon the idea that all we own really belongs to God, and it is God's sole prerogative to determine when we should give it away to others. What if a person does not believe in God? Why would or should that person still give to the poor? If God is so concerned that we help the poor, then why did God create the circumstances of poverty in the first place?
  5. Try this: on the basis of the passages we have studied, create a religiously based program for fighting poverty in your community. (Look at all of Deuteronomy 15 for more information!)

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

(Connect these verses to part one of the Torah portion section.)

Give, you shall surely give to him(the poor person in need of your loans) and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (15:10-11; Based Upon The Translations By JPS And Professor Everret Fox)

  • From Sifre Devarim (a work of Legal Midrash on Deuteronomy attributed to The School of Rabbi Akiva, 2nd Century C.E.) - GIVE, YOU SHALL SURELY GIVE: What is the proof from the Torah that if you support a poor person once you must even support him a hundred times? The words, GIVE, YOU SHALL SURELY GIVE. (You must give once, and you must give over and over) in whatever situation you find that person.
  • From Torah Temimah, (Torah anthology and commentary of Rabbi Barukh HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1942). Comment on Sifre Devarim - This matter (that Sifre Devarim is explaining) is simple: tzedakah is an endless mitzvah, one that lasts a person's entire life, just like the other mitzvot.
  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 151b - The sage Samuel taught that the only difference between our age and the messianic age is that in the latter the Jewish people will no longer be persecuted by other nations. Otherwise, reality will remain as it is.) We know this from the verse, FOR THERE WILL NEVER CEASE TO BE NEEDY ONES IN YOUR LAND.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Think about this: given the fact that our taxes are, in effect, a tzedakah obligation incumbent upon the community, Jews are even more duly obligated to devote their discretionary income to Jewish causes. This is especially the case in our country where separation of church and state forbids religious groups from taking public money for their communities' needs.
  2. Note that the sage Samuel was not only making a textual observation. He was also asserting that poverty is so ingrained in the dynamics of human social life that even the Messiah's redemptive presence will not do away with it. Human beings have to accept poverty as an ongoing human challenge.
  3. Sifre Devarim views philanthropy as a lifetime obligation and discipline. How do we inculcate the value of giving tzedakah in young people and general society, especially in an age of rampant materialism and voluntarism?
  4. Some have suggested that paying one's taxes is as close as we will come to the original concept of tzedakah as a communal obligation. Imagine that you are a public relations official for the IRS. How would you teach the taxation system as a moral/legal obligation? What are the political and moral challenges you would have to deal with in making your argument?

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