Parasha BeHar

Whose Responsibility? 
 I wonder if the idea I am going to talk about tonight has ever crossed your minds before.  It is an idea that might even seem heretical.  It is certainly out of the ordinary. Yet, it is an idea that comes from the heart of the Jewish tradition. It has to do with our relationship to G-d. When we come to synagogue to pray, much of our prayer consists of giving thanks to G-d for all the good that G-d has bestowed upon us. We come to express our gratefulness for the birth of a child. We come to express our heartfelt thanks for our children who, this evening, helped lead services so beautifully. We feel in indebted to the Kadosh Barukh Hu, beholden to G-d, for giving us all that we have in life.  This week our Torah reading comes to teach about a different group of people — those who are not as fortunate as we are. The Torah instructs us how we should act toward those whose lives have become beset with misfortunes, all kinds of misfortunes. “Should your brother come to ruin,” the Torah says, “you need to strengthen him, even if he is not Jewish, even if he is someone just passing through, – that he may live.”  We have a sense of obligation to help our fellow human being when they fall into debt, because, after all, the Torah commands it.  This has always been the Jewish way. It is an important ethical principal for us. The idea is so ingrained in our psyches that we think it is a natural human instinct to help others who have fallen on hard times. It is not. In ancient Rome, a creditor could legally imprison a person who owed him money in his own private dungeon. He could chain him to a block; sell him into slavery, or even worse.   England had an infamous London prison called the Marshalsea, where debtors were sent. Charles Dickens father was sent there in 1824 because he owed money to a baker.  Dickens was forced to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory to try to pay his father’s debt and help support the family. As we know, Dickens went on to write about the inhumane and cruel conditions that the poor suffered in his time. The ethos seems to have been, “When your fellow comes to ruin, you need to punish him for it.”
Not so in our Torah. The Torah repeats, five times in this week’s portion alone, that we have an obligation to help those whose lives are in ruins. The Torah reminds us that our fellow human beings – not just our fellow Jews – are “our brothers and sisters”. In reminding us, the Torah does something very interesting. Up to that point, the Torah speaks to us in the plural. The Torah speaks to society in general – the plural “You” — when giving the law of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.  When it comes to commanding us to support those whose lives are in ruin, the Torah switches to the singular. The Torah now addresses the individual. According to one commentator, this is because it is natural that when a person is in need, everyone wants somebody else to help them – do they have a relative who is close to them, is there a wealthy person who can help them out?  Therefore, the Torah in this case speaks to the individual, in the singular, as if to say –it is YOUR obligation to help the poor, do not exempt yourself and say, “Someone else will do it.”[1]
The presence of the poor and the hungry confronts us with a theological problem. It says in our Psalms, “You open up Your hand, and satisfy every living thing with favor.” The Psalmist praises G-d in by saying, “You give food to all flesh”? What about all of the poor people in our world who are not “satisfied with favor”? What about all the hungry in our nation who do not have enough food to satisfy them?”
According to the Psalms, it appears it is G-d’s obligation to provide sustenance to all of His creatures. It seems that it is G-d’s job to save a person from ruin. Is G-d derelict in G-d’s duties? That is where we come in. In providing for the poor, we lend our hands and snatch, as it were, this mitzvah from G-d and make it our own. Did you know what G-d says when we do this, according to our tradition? G-d says, “I’m in debt to that person who feeds the poor. I am grateful to that person who gave a loan. I owe that person who lifted up another from ruin.” I want to add that this does not begin and end with our care for fellow humans. It extends as well when we show compassion other members of the animal kingdom. G-d says, “I am beholden to that person who rescued that kitten”, “I am obliged to that family who gave this dog a home”.  We always think of ourselves as being thankful to G-d. But when we come to the aid of others, man or beast, G-d is thankful to us.[2]

[1] Alshich, Torat Moshe
[2] I am grateful to Rabbi Yechiel Poupko who provided the idea for this sermon.