Behar: Is It A Kindness or Commandment To Care For Our Neighbors?

Are Jews commanded to support impoverished non-Jews?
Is there such a thing as the “human family?”

Table for Five: Behar

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you, you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he can live with you.

-Lev. 25:35

Bracha Goetz, Author of 40 Jewish Children’s Books

All Jewish people are considered our brethren. We are in the same extended family, coming from the same foremothers and forefathers, sharing an amazing heritage. Even though we may be an argumentative bunch, and even though we have been scattered around the world for thousands of years, when one of our siblings is suffering, we still care.

We feel a part of the pain being experienced and we reach out our hands, which may be stronger than our siblings’ right now. We provide support whenever possible to help them live again with dignity.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, told a joke about an advertising campaign in New York in the 1980’s. “You have a friend in the Chase Manhattan Bank” was a popular slogan on many big signs in Manhattan. At the bottom of one, an Israeli had written, “But in Bank Leumi, you have mishpacha!”

Our Torah’s directives are deeply embedded within us. We continue to respond to the pain of faltering family members, no matter how far away they may be, since we are, in truth, one single entity.

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org, Shaarnun Productions

Hitler said that the Jewish people brought two things to the world, circumcision and conscience. He despised both. He was a social Darwinist who believed in survival of the fittest, and that helping the poor and struggling weakened mankind. You don’t find this in the animal world, so why should it exist in the human world? The Holocaust was part of his solution to the problem he perceived.

Well, if you look at man as nothing more than an animal, then such a perspective is understandable. But the Torah does not say that animals were made in the image of God, as it does concerning man. As physically similar as we might be to non-human beings, we are completely different when it comes to spiritual attributes.

Animals are instinctual; creations pre-programmed to act in certain ways for the sake of survival and whatever other purpose they might serve in the greater scheme of things. Humans are also quite instinctual, and when we allow only our instincts to guide our responses, we act like animals.

But we have a higher level of soul that allows us to rise above our selfish animal instincts, in order to be selfless. When we care for others as much or even more than ourselves, we don’t just do a nice thing. We do the human thing, the godly thing, and that helps us as much, if not more, than the people for whom we are doing the kindness.

Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Counselor, Beit Hatzayar for At-Risk Youth

G-d commands us to treat everyone as brothers. We must help whoever falters, no matter how different they might seem.

This verse describes my defining mission as an officer in the IDF Reserves. I must build a unit out of people from the different corners of Israeli society, rich and poor, religious and secular, Jewish, Druze, and Christian. Because we only meet periodically in the Reserves, this task becomes even harder.

The only way to survive in the military is by knowing that we all, as soldiers, are looking out for each other. You start creating solidarity by opening your own mind and heart. On the outside, we may look and act different, but, digging deeper, we realize how similar we are.

Ultimately, our words and wishes must translate into practical actions.

To achieve this, as a Commander, I start with the smallest things. We run together. No one leaves until all have finished their tasks. Those little yet difficult actions lead to bigger ones. Eventually, the soldiers realize the importance of this solidarity and form the unit we need. That’s why the verse begins with calling the destitute person “your brother,” then clarifies that the commandment includes everyone, “convert or resident.”

In the civilian world the need for solidarity is equally great.

Giving to others is not only the right thing to do. We also benefit. A society filled with people looking out for each other, like a military unit, is more functional and healthier.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

It is humbling to confront a Torah verse that we continually fail to fulfill. The near-messianic vision at the end of Leviticus, curating a society in which neither poverty nor wealth is bequeathed, and in which every person’s travail becomes your obligation to redress, is extraordinary, and aspirational, and represents a goal human civilization has never fully achieved.

How often have we walked by an indigent person and, obligated by our commitment to Torah, felt moved to invite that person inside for a meal, let alone to live? In this verse, every person we meet is an akh, a sibling, and as such deserves personal hizuk (strengthening), even to the point of v’hai imakh, living with you.

According to Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, an 18th C. Hasidic sage, our verse obligates us in a nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty way. This is a command more intimate–and thus more challenging– than generally supporting agencies who themselves support the impoverished. “In order to help such a person, one must be prepared to get into the muck up to one’s neck. If you want to raise someone from the muck, you need to descend into it yourself, for you cannot pull them out from above.”

Rabbi Karlin’s words would obligate us not to walk over the most needy among us and fulfill our societal duty with a magnanimous check. But rather to be down with them, among them, enduring some of the very debasement from which we wish to rescue them, so that with us, and because of us, they are able to live.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

What is a “resident”? It is a righteous gentile whom we must consider as our “brother”. A righteous gentile is defined as a non-Jew who undertakes the Seven Commandments of Noah: the bedrock laws of all of humanity. These Seven Mitzvos are: not to worship idols, nor blaspheme God’s name, and neither to murder, steal, engage in sexual misdeeds, nor tear a limb from a live animal, as well as establish honest courts of law.

The media doesn’t seem to be encouraging this kind of ethical behavior and yet there are unique people among us who rise high and qualify for this virtuous distinction. Such a person is our “brother” and our responsibility!

In the 60s and 70s there was a famous print ad with a picture of a particularly non-Jewish looking person with the caption, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s (rye bread)”. You don’t have to be Jewish for the Jewish People to have your back. You just have to live a decent existence that doesn’t existentially threaten us, and we will extend you a hand in your time of need.

In return, God will respond when we cry out to Him as well. Our charity to the “resident” is not just some nice gesture to be politically correct. It’s one of the 613 Commandments from God!

With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, and Rabbi Aryeh Markman

Image by Kamaji Ogino via Pexels

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