Sadly, there is much poverty in today’s world. Those who actually take up the wandering stick to go collecting are just a tiny minority of the poverty stricken among us both in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz la’aretz. Without a doubt, Eretz Yisroel is bearing the brunt, yet there is plenty of poverty in Brooklyn, Lakewood and many other locales in the goldene medinah too. In fact, a dear friend who deals in these matters and tries to help the poor in his American community said that my mind would be blown if I knew how many people – many of them gainfully employed – are forced to accept tzedakah when it comes to Yomim Tovim and certainly when it comes to marrying off a child.
The truth is that the way we help each other is amazing. Klal Yisroel is truly a remarkable nation. The amount of assistance given to the impoverished and to mosdos of Torah and chesed is just mind-boggling. Certainly, more is always needed. Nevertheless, what is given is remarkable. It is important that we, as a community, and certainly the recipients, acknowledge the tremendous amount of chesed and care bestowed by those who have upon those who don’t.
This week’s parshah, which begins with the mitzvah of Shmittah, contains a profound lesson for both the givers and the recipients. I must admit that when I saw this lesson brought in the sefer Tzror Hamor, one of the Kadmonim, I nearly jumped.
The Tzror Hamor writes that Hashem made the world to be comprised of the rich and the poor. The way that the world is sustained is by the rich acting with kindness towards the poor, as the posuk in Tehillim teaches: “The world is built through chesed” (Tehillim, 89-3). Indeed, the eyes of the poor man are always turned to the rich man, longingly begging for assistance. And how, asks the Tzror Hamor, does the rich man conduct himself? He replies that, often, even when he does help the poor man, the fact that he lives a life of plenty and always has enough food, warmth and shelter, combined with the fact that he need not worry from where his next dollar or meal will come, renders him unable to properly appreciate and empathize with the terrible predicament of the poor man. He never experienced hunger. He never experienced the inability to pay the grocery bill or his children’s sechar limud and the many other pressures and headaches associated with poverty.
THE PURPOSE OF SHMITTAH: TRAINING THE WEALTHY TO IDENTIFY WITH THE POOR
The purpose of the mitzvah of Shmittah, especially in an agrarian society, is for the rich man, who owns many fields bringing him a nice profit, wealth and prestige, to let his land lay fallow for an entire year. For that year, he has no idea how he will live. He will thus feel the pinch, explains the Tzror Hamor. He will feel the pain of the poor man and will thus acquire extra sensitivity for the poor man’s plight during the other six years as a result of having felt what it means not to know from where one’s next dollar is coming.
What an amazing thought.
The Torah wants the rich man to really feel what it means to be poor, so that he can empathize and better assist him with a donation, with a gut vort, and with encouragement. The Torah doesn’t say that the purpose is for the rich man to tell the poor man to “get a better job,” “find employment,” “make more money,” or “go to work.” It says that the purpose of Shmittah is simply for the rich man to feel the bitter taste of poverty and understand what the pauper is going through.
Today, we don’t live in an agricultural society. Therefore, that lesson of Shmittah is not learned every seventh year by most of us, but the idea should still remain with us.
FIVE MINUTES IN THE FREEZING COLD…
The rov of Lodz, Rav Elya Chaim Meisels zt”l, was wholly devoted to raising money for the poor widows and orphans of his city. (In fact, he was once asked by Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky why he didn’t publish his chiddushei Torah. Rav Elya Chaim took out a notebook and explained, “These are the seforim that I am taking to the next world!” The notebook was his ledger of loans that he had taken to assist the poverty stricken.) During one particularly freezing winter, he went to visit a prominent member of his community, a banker who served as president of the community council. Bundled in a coat and scarf, Rav Elya Chaim approached the banker’s mansion and knocked on the door.
The butler who answered the door was shocked to see the great Rav Elya Chaim Meisels outside in the bitter cold. He immediately invited him inside for a hot tea.
Rav Elya Chaim declined. “It is not necessary. Please tell your master to see me at the door.”
The banker heard that the rov was waiting near the threshold and rushed in his evening jacket to greet him. Upon seeing the distinguished rov standing in the freezing weather, he exclaimed. “Rebbe, please step inside. I have the fireplace going and my servant will prepare a hot tea for you. There is no need for you to wait outside.”
“It is fine,” countered Rav Elya Chaim. “I won’t be long and talking here is just perfect. I’m sure you won’t mind. Anyway, why should I dirty your home with my snow-covered boots?”
By this time, the banker was in a dilemma. He was freezing. The icy Polish winter air was blowing into his house, penetrating his very bones. He did not want to close the door and talk outside in the cold, yet the rov refused to enter the house.
“Please, rebbe, I don’t know about you, but I am freezing,” cried the banker. “I don’t mind if your boots are wet. Just come on in.”
Rav Elya Chaim did not budge. He began talking about the plight of some unfortunate community members. The banker’s teeth chattered in response and he begged, “Please, please, rebbe, just tell me what you need. I’ll give anything you want. Just come inside!”
With that, Rav Elya Chaim finally acquiesced. He entered the man’s home and followed him to the den, where a blazing fire heated the room. Then he spoke: “I need firewood for fifty families this winter. It has been particularly cold this year and the need is very great.”
The banker smiled. “No problem. I commit to supplying the wood. Just one question. You know that I always give tzedakah. Why, then, did you make me stand outside?”
“My dear friend,” smiled Rav Elya Chaim, “I know you give, but I wanted to make sure you felt the suffering of these poor people. I knew that five minutes in the freezing cold would give you a different perspective than my asking while basking in the warmth of your fireplace.”
HAVING “BEEN THERE”
Recently, I was compelled to go collecting for someone who had fallen on hard times. What can I say? It was an extremely difficult, humbling experience. Not only were the majority of doors not opened, but even those that did open were opened by individuals who were tired and stressed out from the demands placed on them. Collecting isn’t easy. Nor is it easy to be the parneis who is constantly asked to give.
It is definitely true, though, that one develops sensitivity for collectors forced to go door to door after being on the collecting end.
Similarly, anyone who has ever had to be in a hospital with a loved one for any degree of time will be far more equipped to understand the tremendous chesed performed by bikur cholim organizations. There is no greater nitzrach than a choleh or a family member of a choleh who spends day after day in a hospital. The food provided by bikur cholim combined with their support in many other ways infuse the recipient with a special appreciation for the nature of the chesed that they do. The next time they are solicited for a donation for bikur cholim, you can be sure that they will give willingly and lovingly.
THE LESSON OF SHMITTAH: HASHEM OWNS THE WORLD
If there is one lesson to learn from this week’s parshah and the upcoming Shmittah year, it is that Hashem is Master of everything that we own. He is the One Who gives us our fields, our wealth and the success that we have, and He can take it away when He sees fit. We are merely trustees of His wealth, nothing more.
Yes, it is difficult to constantly be barraged by those seeking assistance. Yes, there is an instinct that says, “I have had enough! I work hard to earn my money. Why are people always asking me for it?!” Nevertheless, the mitzvah of Shmittah teaches us that we must feel for those who seek our assistance. The world is a galgal hachozer; it goes around like a wheel. Today’s rich man could be tomorrow’s poor man and vice versa. It is important to show deep sensitivity to all petitioners, regardless of how much we can give.
There is a story that transpired with Rav Chaim Volozhiner that brings this lesson home. Two Jews who had become enmeshed in a real estate dispute came to him. Each one adamantly claimed that a piece of land belonged to them and that the other had stolen it. Rav Chaim listened to their claims. He then bent down and put his ear to the ground. The two parties looked at him with astonishment. They could not understand what the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin was doing. Rav Chaim replied, “I have just heard both of your claims. Now I put my ear to the ground to hear what the ground has to say about your dispute. I heard the ground saying, “I don’t know why they are arguing. In the end, both of them will belong to me!’”