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Parashat 08/24/2011

Parashat Re’eh
Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Tithing you will tithe (aser ta’aser) the whole crop of your planting.  (14:22)

Rather, opening you will open (pato’ach tiftach) your hand to him [the poor person].  (15:8 and 15:11)

Giving you shall give (naton titen) to him… (15:10)

Enlarging you shall enlarge (ha’aneik ha’anik) him [speaking of a “severance package” for the Hebrew bondsman] (16:14)

Word-doubling for emphasis is a very, very common phenomenon in Hebrew, but in the space of a few verses in our Parashah the Torah uses this kind of locution a whole lot.  What all these examples have in common is that they refer to commandments to be generous with our resources, giving them away to those in need.  But why the huge, huge emphasis, over and over again?


I think the simple answer to the question is: We are not naturally generous, and therefore we need to be reminded constantly that we have to give of our time and our resources to those less fortunate.  But this just pushes the question back one level – why is it so unnatural?


Babies have a very interesting reflex – it is called the “grasp reflex.”  If you put something into a baby’s hand, its hand will spontaneously close on the object.  (If you stroke the back of its hand gently, its hand will spontaneously open back up.)  This was probably all well and good when we had fur and the baby needed to hold on for dear life as mother moved around in search of food.  As the baby grows and becomes more self-aware, the need for this reflex goes away – baby can now control when, and whether, she wants her hand open or closed.  Unfortunately, while the need for the reflex goes away, very often we do not actually seem to grow out of the reflex itself.  We try to grasp as much of the material world as we can, and we do indeed find it very hard to open our hands, sometimes even to those close to us, let alone a poor stranger.  This is very damaging, not only to the poor, but to us as well.


What is the basis of the grasping obsession that we have?  I think it is based on an erroneous evaluation of the nature of the reality we inhabit.  The basis of all existence, our tradition tells us, is the infinite, unbounded Creator.  Nothing is too extraordinary for Gd – if He wants to feed 3 million men, women and children meat for a month, not a problem, the world is full of quail.  If He wants to destroy the world’s superpower, He can bring plagues.  (I am writing this on Memorial Day weekend.  As I was saying the morning prayers today Gd treated our town to a terrific thunderstorm; as I was saying the blessing for prosperity for the year I thought of the weather we’ve been experiencing in our part of the country – hail, floods, tornados – and the concept of plagues and blessings, and our utter dependence on the Gd of nature became very frighteningly real.  Our Sages tell us that the purpose of thunder is to bring people to repentence; even if you have a PhD in Atmospheric Physics it is a very effective tool!)


In other words, the amount and quality of material possessions we have is a function of Gd’s Will, not how hard we work, or how smart or talented we are (or think we are), nor even necessarily how righteous we are.  We all know intelligent, hard-working people who can never seem to get into a comfortable financial situation, and we know others who may not be so talented and have millions.  As long as we believe that the resources in the universe are finite, and that we are all playing a “zero-sum” game, where my gain is your loss and vice-versa, then we will try, futilely as it turns out, to acquire and to hold onto the greatest quantity of material possessions as possible.


On the other hand, once we realize that we are intimately connected to our loving Father in Heaven, who is an unlimited source of all good, and who has created the entire material universe out of nothing (yesh mei-ayin), then we realize that in grasping at the material world we are grasping at straws.  Not only is it useless, it is unnecessary.  Everything that we need for our growth and evolution, all we require to come closer to Gd, is already in our hands, as we say in the Birkot haShachar (morning blessings): Blessed are you H” our Gd, King of the Universe, Who has made for me all that I need.


There is another consideration.  There is an old Indian story about the best way to catch a monkey.  You take a jar with a pretty narrow neck and chain it to the ground.  Put some fruit into the jar.  The monkey will grasp the fruit, but with its fist closed it cannot withdraw its hand.  It’s stuck.  Of course it’s not really stuck – all it has to do is to let go of the fruit and pull its hand out and run away.  But this is exactly how we get stuck.  We acquire something, and unless we are very careful, we get attached to it.  Rather than having it, it has us.  Because of our attachments to the things of the world, we find ourselves bogged down with all kinds of encrustations and unable to move forward spiritually.  As Hillel famously says in Pirke Avot (2:8): The more flesh, the more worms, the more possessions, the more worry… .


All this is not to argue against the material world.  Judaism is not an ascetic religion.  Many of the Sages of the Talmud were wealthy, and some, like Rebbi (R. Yehudah haNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah), were literally as rich as kings.  Yet on his deathbed Rebbi was able to raise his hands to heaven and exclaim that he did not use one penny of his wealth for his personal enjoyment – rather it was all used for the good of the community, that is, the community’s spiritual growth.


You shall surely open your hand – we need to recognize that when we learn to open our hands, we are training ourselves not only to give of what we have, but also to open ourselves up to receive Gd’s blessings and bounty.  In a few days it will be Elul, a time of repentance and introspection leading up to the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe).  Let us spend this time opening our hands and our hearts to Gd and to our fellow human beings, so we can all look forward to a favorable judgment from our Merciful Gd.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 4

This is the way of Torah: To eat bread with salt, to drink water by ration, to sleep upon the ground, to live a life of hardship, and to toil in the Torah.  If you do this, you will be happy and it will be well with you (Ps. 128:2); you will be happy – in this world; and it will be well with you – in the World to Come.

Many commentators note that not all successful Torah scholars live lives of privation; as we mentioned, some were fabulously wealthy.  Nevertheless, as R. Bulka puts it: The individual must be so dedicated to the Torah that it is possible to negate the material and to transcend circumstances.  Once one places Torah into prominence as the essence of life, all else becomes secondary… [my italics].  Devoting oneself to Torah means placing our spiritual goals above our material goals, placing the sustenance of our souls above the sustenance of our bodies.  Since the soul is eternal and the body is quite finite, this seems like a no-brainer.  The trouble is, of course, that the body is palpable to our senses, while the soul is ethereal and tends to get lost in the passions of the moment.  This losing of awareness of our soul is called the yetzer hara, Evil Inclination.  As our Sages tell us, the antidote to the yetzer hara is Torah.  When we focus our awareness on the eternal soul deep inside ourselves, we can enjoy all the bounty of the material world without being attached to it; the material becomes a vehicle for spiritual growth rather than an impediment to it.  This is true happiness!