Posted on August 11, 2023 by Harold Levin

In the Torah portion of R’eih (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), the concept of charity, or “tzedakah” in Hebrew, is mentioned as part of the greater discussion about the many commandments and laws that the Israelites were to follow. The term “tzedakah” is often translated as “charity,” but its meaning goes beyond mere charitable acts; it encompasses the concept of righteous behavior and social justice. Our sacred Temple Beth-El community certainly embraces the concept of tzedakah as part of our everyday culture.

In R’eih, the mitzvah of tzedakah was emphasized in Deuteronomy 15:7-11. This passage encourages the Israelites to be generous and compassionate towards those in need. It emphasizes the importance of not hardening one’s heart or closing one’s hand to the poor and needy among them. Instead, they were instructed to lend freely to those in need and not withhold help, even if the seventh year was approaching—the year of remission when debts are to be forgiven.

There are five key points of tzedakah highlighted in R’eih:

Open hearted generosity: The passage emphasizes the importance of having an open heart and a generous spirit when it comes to helping those less fortunate. It encourages people to give willingly and cheerfully to those in need.

Lending and giving: The concept of tzedakah encompasses both lending and giving. While lending is mentioned in the context of helping someone who is struggling, it’s important to note that the passage also instructs Israelites not to withhold their hand from giving outright to those in need. Our temple community never forces someone to give what they do not have but, at the same time, encourages those who can to do as much as possible to support the temple.

The seventh, or sabbatical, year: The passage mentions that in the seventh year, known as the “Shemitah” or sabbatical year, debts were to be forgiven. Despite the approaching year of remission, people were encouraged to continue providing assistance to those in need, not allowing the upcoming debt release to discourage them from acts of kindness.

Blessings and rewards: The passage also highlights the idea that being generous and compassionate towards others leads to blessings from God. It states that God will bless those who heed this commandment and support them in their future endeavors.

The well-being of the community: Tzedakah is not just an individual act of kindness; it plays a crucial role in maintaining the overall well-being and harmony of the community. By supporting those in need, the Israelites contributed to a more caring and law abiding community.

The concept of the Shemitah has always been of interest to me. In researching for this week’s drash, I found some interesting words from those who are much greater experts on this than I could ever be.

From Rabbi Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz who lived in the 1500’s and early 1600’s:

“The year of Shmita…promotes a sense of fellowship and peace through the suspension of cultivation, even for the needy of your people, for one is not allowed to exercise private ownership over any of the seventh year produce. And this is undoubtedly a primary factor in promoting peace since most dissension originates from the attitudes of ‘mine is mine,’ one person claiming ‘it is all mine’ and the other also claiming ‘it is all mine.’ But in the seventh year all are equal, and this is the real essence of peace.”

From Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenzi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine:

“A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant…It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards Divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life.”

From the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah:

“All the sevenths are always beloved. Above the seventh is beloved: Skies, skies of the skies, firmament, heavens, celestial realm, abode, and clouds. And it is written (Psalms 68:5), “extol Him who rides the clouds; the Lord is His name.” In the lands, the seventh is beloved: Earth, ground, globe, valley, wilderness, oblivion and world. And it is written (Psalms 9:9), “And He judges the world with righteousness, judges the peoples with equity.”

I think we could all agree that our society could benefit immensely from “a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant” as mentioned by Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Luntschitz was right on the money when he mentioned that dissention occurs when the “mine is mine” mentality exists. Somehow, the culture of entitlement appeared to be as problematic six hundred years ago as it is today. Finally, as talked about in Vayikra rabbah, if we all learned to treasure God’s gifts and take a sabbatical from the hostilities of everyday life, our world would be in a much better place.

Shabbat shalom,

Harold Levin,

Guest darshan