The Joy of Opportunity

June 24, 2009

8 min read


Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )

Why we don’t lose when performing mitzvot.

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha, we find the following verse:

"If your brother becomes poor and his hand fails with you [an expression indicating poverty], you should uphold him." (Leviticus 25:35)

A number of questions confront us when reading this verse:


  1. Why does the Torah use a double expression of poverty? Doesn't the first part of the verse suffice to explain the situation?



  2. Why does the second expression of poverty ("his hand fails with you") include the words, "with you"? These words would seem to imply that the potential giver also became impoverished, which is not true!



  3. The Midrash (Vayikra Raba 34:1) states that this verse clarifies the verse in Psalms (41:2) that reads, "Fortunate is one who considers the poor person; on a bad day, God will save him." What does the Midrash mean? What is the connection between these two verses?



  4. Furthermore, it would seem more sensible for the verse in Psalms to read, "Fortunate is the one who gives to the poor person." What is the benefit in merely considering the poor? What is the meaning behind the choice of words in Psalms?


We can begin to approach these questions by examining an interesting statement about tzedakah. According to the Arizal, the act of giving tzedakah to a poor person is not only a mitzvah; it actually forms the Name of God! The coin is essentially a dot, which represents the Hebrew letter that is most dot-like: yud. The giver then takes the coin in the five fingers of his hand. The hand thus represents the Hebrew letter with the numerical value of five: hei. The giver stretches out his hand to give the coin, forming a straight line with his arm that resembles the shape of the Hebrew letter vav, whereupon the poor person opens his hand (hei) to receive the coin. In this way, God's Name (yud, then hei, then vav, then hei) has been spelled in order.

We can use this idea to explain the verse, "A rich man and a poor man meet; God makes them all" (Proverbs 22:2). Although the literal interpretation of the verse is as we just stated, we could also understand it, based on the Arizal's idea, to mean, "A rich man and a poor man meet; all together, they make God (oseh kulam Hashem)"! [God's Name is spelled out in the verse]. In other words, the encounter between the giver and the recipient of tzedakah enables the two people to form the Name of God.

This is true, however, only if the giver initiates. If the poor person must request tzedakah before the giver provides it, God's Name is spelled out of order. In this unfortunate scenario, the poor person opens his hand (hei) and stretches out his arm (vav), whereupon the giver reaches out his hand (hei) and gives the coin (yud). These are still the letters of God's Name, but the Name is spelled backwards (hei-vav-hei-yud).

According to the Tikkunei Zohar (10a), it is auspicious for the letters yud and vav to come before the hei's in God's Name. (When God's Name is spelled in order, the letter yud comes before the first hei and the letter vav comes before the second hei.) Having the letters in this order represents mercy, life, and peace, because they spell God's Name in the correct order.

When God's Name is in order, life flows in order. When God's Name is out of order, however, and the hei's come before the letters yud and vav, a scenario of strict justice, death, and poverty is indicated. Chaos results from God's Name being spelled out of order. Such a situation can come about, as we saw before, when a poor person must initiate the mitzvah of tzedakah, thus spelling God's Name backwards (hei-vav-hei- yud).


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According to the Tiferet Shmuel, these ideas will help us understand the answer to the first question. The phrase, "and his hand fails with you" (u'matah yado imach) is not repetitious. Rather, it can be translated as, "and his hand moves with you" - in other words, stretch out your hand first! The Torah is cautioning us that when a poor person stretches out his hand, he should be following our lead. We - not the poor - should initiate the mitzvah of tzedakah.

This also answers the second question, regarding the problematic words "with you." We can understand these words as an instruction, meaning, "See to it that the poor person's hand is with your hand, not by itself." If the poor person's hand is alone, it indicates that he had to reach out first, which is undesirable. If the poor person's hand is with your hand, however, it shows that you initiated the giving.

The Midrash we mentioned earlier picks up on these nuances, which is why it connects this verse to the verse in Psalms, "Fortunate is the one who considers (maskil) the poor." Now we can see why the verse does not define as fortunate one who merely gives to the poor, which will answer the fourth question. The word "maskil" comes from the word "sechel," meaning "intelligence." A person who gives tzedakah without intelligence, by waiting until he is asked, creates the energy of death and destruction in the world. A person who gives with intelligence, however, and is ready to reach out his hand to the poor before he is asked for assistance, creates the Name of God in the world, which brings the energy of life and health.

This answers the third question as well. The Midrash understands the intent of the verse in this week's portion, which is why it connects it to the verse in Psalms. Both verses refer to the same situation.

How can we learn to be proactive, and to initiate giving rather than merely responding to requests for aid? The key is to develop love for the mitzvot we've been given. If we cultivate an attitude of joy and love toward mitzvot, we will be on the lookout for any opportunity to fulfill them. The Arizal, for example, attributed all the incredible greatness he achieved to the joy he put into performing mitzvot. (A story is told that, once, when the Arizal went to buy the four species before Sukkot, he was so excited that he threw his entire wallet full of money to the store owner, saying, "Take whatever you want!")


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This week's parsha gives us a hint about how to develop enthusiasm toward mitzvot. The parsha opens by describing the agricultural laws of the Sabbatical year ("shmita"), in which the land is required to rest every seventh year. We notice one seemingly unnecessary detail before the presentation of these laws. The verse says, "God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying..." (Leviticus 25:1).

Rashi asks the obvious question: wasn't every law given to Moses on Mount Sinai? Why are the laws of shmita specifically singled out? Rashi answers that, just as God taught Moses the general laws of shmita as well as all the intricate details relating to it, so, too, did He teach Moses the general principles and the details of all the mitzvot at Mount Sinai.

But this only answers half the question. Why was shmita, in particular, the mitzvah chosen to serve as an example? Any mitzvah could have taught us this lesson! We can resolve this problem if we examine the fundamental nature of the mitzvah of shmita.

The shmita laws are completely counter-intuitive. To farmers who rely on yearly crop yield, it would seem that keeping this mitzvah would inevitably lead to catastrophic financial loss. Yet God promises that no loss will come about through the fulfillment of the shmita laws. On the contrary; He assures us that performing this mitzvah will lead to profit and gain! This is why shmita was used as an example. It is the ultimate demonstration that we cannot lose by fulfilling mitzvot - even mitzvot that we would expect to result in severe monetary loss.

This, in turn, teaches us how to relate to all the other mitzvot that require spending money (buying the four species for Sukkot; restocking our kitchens for Passover; giving tzedakah). We learn from the shmita laws that we will never lose by performing a mitzvah. With this knowledge, we can develop an attitude of eagerness and enthusiasm towards mitzvot - even those that require us to dig deep into our pockets.

May we be blessed to have such love for the performance of mitzvot, that we initiate opportunities to give a helping hand to others. And in this merit, may we be blessed with only gain in life.

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