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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira: A special present
The Torah expects the Jewish people to do acts of charity and justice, and make sure to educate their children to do the same. On the third day after his circumcision, despite his physical weakness, Abraham went out to search for strangers to invite them into his home and provide for their needs. Lot had been educated by Abraham to do whatever was necessary to provide others with their needs. "If there is a destitute person among you … do not harden your heart or close your hand." We find it difficult to live up to the standard of Abraham who had a real love for giving and helping. We truly emulate Abraham when we look for opportunities to express our love to give of ourselves. Since we often do not know for certain if a charitable cause is legitimate this would be an excuse for us whenever we do not give sufficient funds to a cause. "More than the owner of the house does for the poor, the poor does for the owner of the house." The Zohar says that before G'd executes judgment, He will bring about an opportunity for those who are worthy to do an act of charity. Just as Lot had to add his own acts of charity in order to connect with the merits of Abraham so must we utilize our opportunities in order to tap in to the merits of our great Patriarch.
G'd's love for Abraham
In this week's Torah portion G'd expresses His special love for Abraham before He reveals to Abraham His plans to destroy Sodom. G'd says (Bereishis 18:19): "I have loved him because he instructs his children and his household after him so that they keep the way of G'd to do charity and justice …" This is why G'd has chosen the Jewish people. Abraham was not only concerned to merely do what was right; he went beyond the letter of the law and looked for opportunities to do charity. Even more important, for Abraham it was not sufficient that he himself did acts of justice and charity, he made sure to educate his children, his disciples, and members of his household to do likewise. And this is what the Torah expects of the Jewish people ever since: Do acts of charity and justice, and make sure to educate your children to do the same.
Abraham searches for strangers
The classic example of Abraham's love to help his fellow human beings is found at the beginning of this week's portion. The Torah relates how Abraham on the third day after his circumcision, despite his physical weakness, went out to search for strangers to invite them into his home and provide for their needs. Once he found his visitors, Abraham made sure to involve his son Ishmael in the preparations for the meal. As it says (Bereishis 18:7): "And Abraham ran to the cattle and he took a tender and good calf and he gave it to the boy." The Midrash Rabbah (48:13) explains that this boy was Ishmael who Abraham at the time was eager to educate to perform acts of lovingkindness.
Later in this week's portion, it is related how the angels came to Sodom. When Lot saw the strangers he went out of his way to invite them into his house despite the apparent danger. Lot had been a member of Abraham's household for many years, and there he had learned to do whatever was necessary to provide others with their needs.
Do not close your hand
This is how Abraham conducted himself and this is what the Torah commands us to do in our daily lives. In Parashas Re'eh (Devarim 15:7-8) we are commanded to look after the poor and the destitute and give them what they need. As it says: "If there is a destitute person among you … do not harden your heart or close your hand … For you shall open you hand to him and [if he does not want to accept charity - see Rashi] you shall lend him what he needs that he is lacking."
Not always easy
However, it is not always easy to fulfill this obligation. Sometimes, a needy person will knock on our door just as we are about to sit down for supper. We may be inclined to close our heart and hand rather than to be inconvenienced and open the door for this poor person. At other times, we may be busy with other activities when the phone rings and an organization is trying to solicit funds for a charity or ask us to volunteer for a project. It is not uncommon that poor people come to the synagogue with outstretched hands going from row to row trying to get a coin or two from the worshippers. In all of these situations it can be rather irritating to be disturbed and we may find it difficult to live up to the standard of Abraham who had a real love for giving and helping.
However, the Prophet Micah (6:8) tells us in the name of G'd that we are expected to emulate our great Patriarch, as he says: "And what does G'd expect of you but to do justice and love charity …" The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed 2:1) points out that justice we are expected to do, whereas charity we are expected to love. He explains that whatever we earn we have to make sure that it is honest and just. On the other hand, when we give charity and do acts of lovingkindness we should not wait until we are asked to give or to get involved. Rather, we should look for opportunities to express our love to give of ourselves. In this way we truly emulate Abraham.
Unfortunately, some people do just the opposite. They love to make money and are not too scrupulous to make sure that what they earn is honest and just. But when it comes to give charity, they scrutinize the recipient to make sure that it is a legitimate cause and that they are not giving their money to a dishonest person or cause. For sure they are people collecting for charity who do not deserve it. Already in the times of our sages, this was an issue. However, the Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 34:10) teaches how we should look at that. The Midrash says, "We must appreciate the cheaters among those collecting funds, for if not for them if someone would ask for a donation and one would not give, this person would be severely punished." Since we often do not know for certain if a charitable cause is legitimate this would be an excuse for us whenever we do not give sufficient funds to a cause. The great Chassidic leader of post-War Jewry, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, was known for his generosity. Once he was approached by a person who told the Rebbe about his problems, how his wife was very sick and needed expensive medical treatment. The Rebbe gave him a large donation and wished him well. After the person left, one of the Rebbe's confidants knocked on his door and told him that he had just been visited by this person was a cheater and there was no validity to his story. "Baruch HASHEM", said the Rebbe, "that he is not in such a bad situation and his wife is not really sick." This was the approach of a worthy descendant of Abraham whose love for his fellow being and his love to give knew no bounds.
Ruth and Boaz
For many of us, who are not on the level of the Satmar Rebbe, giving charity is not an easy task. But if we analyze what our sages teach regarding charity it will help us to accomplish what G'd expects of us. The Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 34:8) quotes a verse from the Book of Ruth (2:19) and points out that Ruth used an usual expression when she related to her mother-in-law Naomi her experience at the field of Boaz. Ruth said, "The name of the man that I worked for today is Boaz." The Midrash comments that Ruth had done absolutely nothing for Boaz. On the contrary, Boaz had done her a great favour and told her that she could collect for herself as much as she wanted. In addition, he permitted her to join the maidens at their meal and eat and drink together with them. Says the Midrash from this we learn that, "More than the owner of the house does for the poor, the poor does for the owner of the house."
In general this is understood to mean that the reward that the wealthy receive for dispensing charity is much greater and more valuable than the amount that the poor person receives. However, we find an amazing insight in the Zohar on this week's portion (104a) that gives us an additional understanding of this concept. The Zohar says that before G'd executes judgment, He will bring about an opportunity to do an act of charity for those who are worthy. The Zohar elaborates on this and says "When G'd loves someone, He sends him a present. And what is this present? A poor man that G'd specially sends to this person to provide him with a merit and with this merit he will be saved at the time of judgment." The Zohar explains that before G'd punished Sodom, G'd sent the three angels to Abraham as a present so that Abraham would look after them, and in that merit his nephew Lot would be saved. Says the Zohar, this is the deeper meaning of the following verse (Bereishis 19:29): "And it was when G'd destroyed the cities of the plain and G'd remembered Abraham. And He sent Lot from amidst the upheaval when He turned over the cities that Lot had lived in." It appears that Lot did not have sufficient merits of his own to be saved, and only with the merits of his uncle, Abraham, was his life spared. That is why it says that G'd remembered Abraham and only then did He send Lot out of Sodom. However, earlier (99a) the Zohar adds that the angels came to Sodom so that Lot also had the opportunity to provide for the strangers. This teaches us that although Lot was saved in Abraham's merit, he had to do something himself to connect to Abraham.
As descendants of Abraham we can also benefit from his merits; however, just as Lot had to add his own acts of charity in order to connect with the merits of Abraham so must we utilize our opportunities in order to tap in to the merits of our great Patriarch. The Talmud (Shabbos 55a) mentions that there were times when the merits of our Patriarchs were extinct. Rabbi Dessler explains that this refers to people who did not connect to the Patriarchs and did not follow in their footsteps. When we keep this in mind, we can well appreciate the words of our sages that the poor do more for the wealthy than the wealthy do for them. And we realize that when we see the outstretched hand, hear the knock on the door or the phone ringing, we are not being inconvenienced. Rather, G'd is sending us a special present that we should accept gracefully.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network