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Open Your Heart, Open Your Hand

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

When instructing us in the mitzvah of tzedakah the verse employs two expressions of warning: "do not harden your heart" and "do not recoil your hand."[1] What we obviously need to clarify is precisely to what each expression is referring.

Regarding the first expression, we find a similar statement regarding Pharaoh, when he strengthened his heart[2] during the course of the 10 Plagues. In that context, the strengthening of the heart clearly means that he made himself unfeeling and immune to the intense pressure of the plagues. He did this in order to keep himself from buckling to their pressure.

So, then, in our context it would seem that the warning to not harden one's heart is that one should not make himself cold and unsympathetic to his fellow Jew's plight. It is hard to refrain from giving while simultaneously feeling the other's pain and distress; so, in order to "absolve" oneself of one's duty and relieve oneself of this emotional burden, one may harden his heart against the other's predicament. The Torah is therefore warning us, do not do this - rather let your heart be soft and receptive to his pain so that your emotions will indeed propel you to carry out your obligation.[3]

The second expression can be understood through a short anecdote that my father, Mr. Dennis Berman, once told me (obviously, without disclosing the name of the subject). My father was once talking to a certain person trying to convince him to give a sizable donation to a particular cause. The individual attempted to "stave off the attack" by claiming that he just didn't have the financial ability at the time to make such a donation. But my father knew that was not the case. So, the discussion continued until the man was finally cornered into admitting that although he indeed could make the donation - "I just can't do it!" My father then added his commentary to the story that "people feel like it's coming out of their kishkas."

This anecdote is quite revealing and, I think, provides us with the understanding to the second expression of warning that the verse employs. Sometimes you really do want to give but, for some reason, you just can't seem to open up your wallet and just do it. Or, in more modern terminology, to bring yourself to just cut the check. It is not for naught that our Sages tell us that one's wallet is one of the three things through which a person's true character can be determined. The Vilna Gaon explains that, in a certain sense, one's possessions comprise a portion of one's self. With that in mind, we can well understand how it can indeed be a difficult task to give of one's assets to another in need (or to any worthy cause for that matter).

Another anecdote comes to mind. Rabbi Zvi Teitlebaum[4] related that someone was once stuck with some car trouble, and a kind man came over to help. For some time, this gentleman assisted in dealing with the situation. When he finished, the man who provided assistance was asked if he had a dime so that a phone call could be made from the pay phone. At this point, the man demurred. "It's amazing," said Rabbi Teitlebaum as he related the anecdote, "this man had no problem being so kind to take of his time and put forth effort to help - but when it came to giving even just a bit of money, he couldn't do it!"

Therefore, we are warned, "do not recoil your hand." Keep it open and extended and give with pleasure.


Well, the fact that the Torah promises that Hashem will bless our endeavors for upholding this mitzvah[5] certainly helps. Also, we must always bear in mind that our assets are all a result of the grace of Hashem, and as such, we must of course do with them as the true Owner commands. As Chazal teach us, "Give to Him from that which is His, for you and yours are actually His."[6]

Another important, very helpful point is the end of the pasuk that describes to whom you are giving - "to your poor brother." Just imagine that it was indeed your own brother, your own flesh and blood - it would not be nearly as difficult to give (and with a joyful heart). One must keep this in mind any time one is solicited by (or for) one's fellow Jew - that it is your brother that you are being asked to help. Doing this certainly makes the giving that much easier. And let us of course not forget the dictum that "the reward is commensurate with the difficulty"[7] - the more one finds it difficult to uphold the mitzvah and he nevertheless perseveres and succeeds, that much greater will be his reward.


1. Devarim 15:7.

2. Or when Hashem did it for him, see parshas Vaeira 7:22, 8:11, 8:15, 8:28, 9:7, 9:12, and 9:35. Also, see parshas Bo 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, and 11:10 as well as parshas Beshalach 14:4, 14:8, and 14:17.

3. And in instances when one is not obligated (or perhaps not allowed, see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deiah 249:1 in the Rema), we can apply the pirush of the Ibn Ezra who explains "Do not harden your heart" to mean "from saying kind, encouraging words that speak to the unfortunate individual's heart." The truth is that such words should be said as one gives tzedakah. When that is not possible, though, then at the very least one should endeavor to uphold this aspect of chesed. (A friend of mine would always cheerily wish tzedakah collectors "hatzlacha" even when he had no money to give them.)

4. Of the Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington.

5. Devarim 15:10.

6. Avos 2:1.

7. Avos 5:23.


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