Behar-Bechukotai 5781: The Power to Empower
Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )
GOOD MORNING! Over this past year I have spent a significant amount of time in a small town in Central Pennsylvania. It’s the kind of place where people often wave at you as you’re driving down the street, even if they have no idea who you are. Even though, for all intents and purposes, it’s merely a simple greeting from a complete stranger, it still manages to brighten your day a little.
However, just because something is simple does not mean it is unimportant. The importance of greeting someone has been recognized and adopted as a valuable business tool for increasing business by huge retailers like Walmart, Home Depot, and many car dealerships. At the tail end of the last recession, Walmart briefly considered the position of “greeter” expendable and eliminated thousands of jobs across their vast network of stores. A few years later, they reinstated the position due to overwhelming customer demand.
Walmart even found that it had a direct fiscal benefit as well. Customers who were greeted at the door felt that someone was paying attention to them and therefore purchased more (and shoplifted less). Similarly, research shows that smiling is contagious and the act of smiling makes someone feel a little bit better about themselves.
In addition, as we discussed last week, every person is a unique universe unto themselves. Many times we are so self-absorbed that we aren’t even aware of anyone else or their very singular lives. Greeting someone in a warm manner validates who they are and recognizes their importance. I am reminded of the following story, which highlights both of these points.
Robert Jones was a Walmart greeter who was habitually late for work, but otherwise an excellent employee. Out of frustration concerning this gentleman’s tardiness, the Walmart store manager called him in for a one-on-one meeting. “So,” began the manager, “I understand you are retired from the armed forces. May I inquire as to which branch?”
“I was in the Navy,” replied the employee. “And,” inquired the boss, “were you ever late arriving at your former job?” “Why, yes, sometimes I came late” answered the greeter. “Well, tell me, what comment was made upon your late arrival?” The greeter smiled and replied, “Good Morning Admiral Jones, would you like tea or coffee this morning?”
Of course, this week’s Torah portion delivers a relevant message on this subject. In this week’s Torah reading we find the following verse: “If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters in your proximity, you shall grab hold of him…” (Leviticus 25:35).
The sages of the Talmudic era discuss the concept of having the responsibility to help the needy among us and end the lesson by saying that if we neglect to fulfill our responsibility to help them we are actually robbing from the poor.
This is somewhat perplexing. In what way is not giving charity equal to stealing from the poor? It seems very difficult to equate not giving charity to stealing; one is a sin of omission, while the other is a sin of commission.
In a similar vein, we find a remarkable passage in the Talmud (Brachos 6b) that discusses an enigmatic admonition from the prophet Isiah, “What you have stolen from the poor is in your houses” (Isiah 3:14). The great medieval commentator known as Rashi explains (ad loc) that the Talmud is wondering why we are singling out stealing from the poor; after all, stealing from the rich is also a terrible sin!
Additionally, it doesn’t even seem to make sense to expend the effort on stealing from the poor; how much can one realistically take? (Quite the opposite of Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber, who when asked why he robbed banks supposedly answered “because that’s where the money is.”)
To explain what it means to steal from the poor the Talmud says, “This is referring to a situation where someone greets you and you purposefully ignore him.” Obviously, this is improper, perhaps even boorish, behavior, but why do the sages refer to this as stealing? What in fact did you actually take?
The answer is that you took his self-respect. By ignoring his friendly overture, you actually made a very clear statement about what you think of him – that he isn’t an entity worthy of a response. You denigrated his very existence. Obviously, this is very painful for anybody to experience, but it is particularly devastating to a poor person who already feels depressed about his situation and his stature. This is why the prophet singled out the needy in his admonition, because they are the most vulnerable to this type of discourtesy.
The antidote to this is in this week’s Torah reading, where we are explicitly instructed on how we should view a fellow Jew who has fallen on hard times – “If your brother becomes impoverished...”
In other words, we have to treat someone who needs our help as we would a blood brother. When a person helps his brother he does not consider it charity; a person ought to consider it a privilege to be able to help his family because he wants to see them succeed. Similarly, a child who receives help from his parents isn’t made to feel like a charity case. Quite the opposite, he feels love and support, and ultimately validation, from his parents.
When we ignore the needs of a poor person we are taking away his self-esteem and telling him that he isn’t worthy of our help. Destroying a person’s self-respect will predictably lead to dire consequences.
A person with low self-esteem has no interest in improving his situation because he feels inadequate, incapable, and unworthy of better circumstances. To make matters worse, this in turn destroys what little self-respect he had and creates a devastating downward spiral.
In the early eighties, the United States was in the grip of a very difficult recession; inflation was nearly 12% and the Federal Reserve kept raising interest rates to try and manage it. At one point, in 1982, the Prime Rate was set at an almost UNBELIEVABLE 22%. Needless to say. these were extremely hard times and, in particular, the not-for-profit organizations suffered dearly. (Perhaps understandably so, in hard times the first expense to be eliminated from one’s budget are charitable contributions.)
Our school too, teetered on the brink of closure. There simply wasn’t money to pay for the basics of salaries and utilities.
My father approached one of the wealthy members of our community and, in desperation, begged him for help to pay the teachers. This man had once bragged to my father that he had so much money that not only would he never have to work again, neither his children nor any of his grandchildren would ever have to work. Having the available funds to help was not an issue for him.
After agreeing to see my father and listening to his tale of woe, the man wrote a very large check and thrusts it into my father’s hand with the following comment, “You don’t deserve it, but take it anyway.”
My father, suitably humiliated – but still desperate for funds – dropped his head and accepted the check before mumbling his gratitude and quickly leaving. This wealthy man had the opportunity to build my father up emotionally with loving support, but instead he tore him down. It was a horrible feeling and it haunted my father for many years.
There is a lesson here for all of us. When we give charity, we must make every effort to ensure that the recipients don’t feel like a charity case, or worse, that they are unworthy of our help. We should take the time and listen to their plight and try to assuage their despondency when they are in anguish. In this way, we are not only helping them financially, we are actually empowering them by building their self-esteem as well.
Whenever we help someone, he must feel that it is our honor to be able to help because we believe in him and respect him. The Torah is teaching us that the true antidote to poverty is creating a relationship with the person who needs our help. Ultimately, this validation enables him to help himself.
Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34
Behar begins with the laws of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year, where the Jewish people are commanded not to plant their fields or tend to them in the seventh year. Every 50th year is the Yovel (Jubilee year) when agricultural activity is also proscribed.
These two commandments fall into one of the seven categories of evidence that God gave the Torah. If the idea is to give the land a rest, then do not plant one-seventh of the land each year. To command an agrarian society to completely stop cultivating every seventh year one has to be either God or a meshugenah (crazy).
Also included in this portion: redeeming land that was sold, to strengthen your fellow Jew when his economic means are faltering, not to lend to your fellow Jew with interest, and the laws of indentured servants. The portion ends with the admonition to not make idols, to observe the Shabbat, and to revere the Sanctuary.
The second portion for this week, Bechukotai, begins with the multitude of blessings you will receive for keeping the commandments of the Torah (truly worth reading!). It also contains the tochachah, words of admonition: “If you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments…” There are seven series of seven punishments each. Understand that God does not punish for punishment's sake; He wants to get our attention so that we will introspect, recognize our errors, and correct our ways. God does not wish to destroy us or annul His covenant with us. He wants us to know that there are consequences for our every action. He also wants to get our attention so that we do not stray so far away that we assimilate and disappear as a nation. I highly recommend reading Leviticus 26:14 - 45 and Deuteronomy 28.
We let folks know we’re interested in them and that they’re vital to us. Because they are.
— Sam Walton, Founder of Walmart