The Rewards of Outreach
Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )
The Torah is stricter regarding the treatment of the Meisit - inciter - than it is with any other transgression. The Torah specifically instructs us not to have any mercy on him and not to attempt to prove his innocence, concepts which aren't found by other suspected sinners (Deut. 13:7-11).
The Alter of Kelm points out that this stringency is even greater when one considers that in reality, the inciter didn't accomplish anything. Although he attempted to convince another Jew to worship idolatry, he was unsuccessful. The other person turned him in and refused to listen to him. Even so, the desire to sway another person from the Torah's path is so severe that it receives this stringent penalty.
Rashi writes (Exodus 20:5) that God's reward for those who listen to His commandments is 500 times greater than the punishment meted out to sinners. Many times, a person who is engaged in kiruv - Jewish outreach - invests valuable time and energy trying to educate another person, only to find that his efforts are completely unsuccessful.
As frustrating as this experience must surely be, the Alter of Kelm offers inspiring words of comfort and consolation based on the aforementioned principles. If God reserves His most severe and stringent punishments for one who merely tries to persuade another Jew to leave the Torah path, how much more must be the immense reward lying in store for a person who tries, even unsuccessfully, his utmost to draw someone closer to their Creator!
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ASSISTING THE POOR
The Torah exhorts us to have compassion upon the poor (Deut. 15:8). The Talmud (Bava Basra 10a) records that a wicked Roman nobleman named Turnus Rufus asked Rebbe Akiva, "If your God cares for poor people so much, why doesn't He provide for them?" Rebbe Akiva answered that God allows them to remain poor to provide us the merit of giving them charity.
The Alter of Kelm questions Rebbe Akiva's explanation. Although the mitzvah of giving tzedakah is certainly a great one, aren't there enough other commandments that we can do? What is so unique and special about giving charity, and why must the poor suffer to enable us to specifically perform this mitzvah?
The Alter explains that the mitzvah of tzedakah serves an irreplaceable function. Although one fulfills the technical letter of the law by distributing charity to those in need, in order to perform this mitzvah at its highest level a person must do more than this. It isn't sufficient to give charity simply because God commanded us to do so and we want to perform His will. A person dispersing tzedakah should feel the pain and plight of the poor as if it were his very own. Just as a person who feels his own hunger naturally responds by feeding himself, so too should we strive to identify with the pauper's anguish to the point that we would be moved to assist him even if we weren't obligated to do so.
Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meisels, the Rav of Lodz in Poland, was renowned for his concern for the poor and downtrodden. On one fierce winter day, he knocked on the door of a wealthy, but stingy, man in his town to solicit a donation. After exchanging greetings, the man gestured that Rabbi Meisels should enter, but he remained outside and began his appeal. The rich man was puzzled by the rabbi's behavior, but he attempted to listen out of respect. After a few minutes he grew so cold that he was unable to continue. He interrupted the rabbi and begged him to come inside.
The sagacious rabbi explained, "I am here to collect money for a family which can't even afford to build a fire on a day like today. If we enter your warm home, you won't be able to relate to their suffering. Only by discussing their plight here at your door are you able to understand the magnitude of their pain." Appreciating both the rabbi's wisdom as well as the extent of the family's anguish, the miser gave a generous donation.
It is difficult for most of us to relate to the daily suffering that many unfortunately know. Now that we understand that empathizing with their plights is an integral part of giving tzedakah, we should try our utmost, whether by volunteering at a soup kitchen or by walking through the park on a bitter winter night, to work on personally experiencing and feeling their pain. Our desire to generously assist them will naturally follow, and in so doing, we will be helping not only the poor but also ourselves.
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MOURNING FOR A PARENT
The Torah prohibits (Deut. 14:1) various forms of mourning the death of loved ones. Why is the mourning period for the more natural and frequent loss of a parent longer (12 months) than that for the unnatural and seemingly more traumatic loss of a child (30 days)?
This question was raised when Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner and Rabbi Pinchas Teitz went to comfort Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik when he was mourning the death of his wife. Rabbi Hutner suggested that with the death of a parent, a person becomes more removed from his connection to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which requires additional mourning. Rabbi Teitz pointed out that all other relatives can be "replaced" - a person can remarry, have additional children, or gain new siblings through his parents having children. The only relative for whom there can be no substitute is a parent, and this unique status merits additional mourning.
Rabbi Soloveitchik posited that the question itself contains the answer. Because the death of other relatives is less natural, our Sages were concerned that a person may overdo his bereavement if he was permitted to absorb himself in his grief, so they limited the mourning period to 30 days, a concern which isn't applicable to the natural death of a parent.
Finally, Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin (Meged Yosef) suggests that a person needs the advice of his parents for his entire life. When a parent dies, a child must focus on remembering and internalizing their values and priorities, which will guide him for the rest of his life. He does so by mourning the loss and focusing on the memories for an entire year, for this period contains all of the festivals and different periods in life through which a person passes.
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The Torah prohibits extreme forms of mourning the death of loved ones (Deut. 14:1). Since the laws of nature dictate that every living thing will eventually die, why is human nature to mourn the loss of a loved one, sad as it may be, with such intensity when we mentally recognize that death is inevitable?
In his work Toras HaAdam on the laws of mourning, Nachmanides offers a fascinating explanation for this phenomenon. When God originally created the first man, Adam, He intended him to be immortal and created him with a nature reflecting this reality. When Adam sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit, he brought death to mankind and to the entire world.
Nevertheless, although this new development completely changed the nature of our life on earth, it had no effect on man's internal makeup, which was designed to reflect the reality that man was intended to live forever. Although our minds recognize that people ultimately must die and we hear about death constantly, our internal makeup remains as it was originally designed. We expect our loved ones to live forever as they were originally intended to do, and we are therefore plunged into intense mourning when confronted with the reality that this is no longer the case.