Parashas Naso / Megillas Rus

In his commentaries on parashas Naso and Ruth 1:2, the Maggid discusses the importance of giving the proper amount of charity. I present here a digest of the Maggid’s discussion. This is a lengthy post, but the original is even lengthier.
The Book of Ruth begins with an account of how Elimelech, a wealthy and prominent Jew, fled the Land of Israel in the wake of a famine. The Sages explain that he wished to avoid being overtaken with requests for help from the poor. The Midrash in Ruth Rabbah 2:5 interprets the name Elimelech as reflecting the inner thoughts of its bearer – Elimelech would say: “Kingship is coming to me” (Eilai tavo malchus). The Sages criticize him for his attitude and conduct.
In parashas Naso, the Torah states (Bamidbar 5:10): “What a man gives to the Kohen shall be his.” Rashi, based on Tanchuma Re’eh 10 on Devarim 14:22, comments that a person who does not give terumos (Kohanite portions) and ma’asros (tithes) to the Kohen and the Levite will eventually see his field produce only the amount that should have been given as ma’aser. The Maggid analyzes the reason for this specific punishment. I presented the Maggid’s basic idea in a previous post on parashas Behar. Here I will review the discussion there and present further comments of the Maggid on the theme.
The basic idea is that, from the standpoint of strict justice, Hashem should take upon Himself only to give each person day by day exactly what he needs to survive the day. This is how it was when the Jewish People lived on manna: each person, no matter how much he tried to collect, was left in the end with precisely what he needed, no more and no less (Shemos 16:17-18). And this is in fact how it should be: ideally, people should trust in Hashem to provide their immediate needs moment by moment, like a baby suckling from its mother.
But, human nature being as it is, most people cannot live this way. Only the exalted few have such whole-hearted faith in Hashem’s providence. The common people would die of anxiety if Hashem did not give them more than their minimal daily needs, in order to quell their fear over how they will manage tomorrow.
Hence, Hashem devised a brilliant strategy whereby He could give most people more than they need and still follow the strict letter of the law. He designated one cherished family – the Levites – to be free from all worldly toil, their lives devoted to serving Him at all times. This family is sustained by the terumos and ma’asros that the Jewish People give, receiving no more than their immediate needs. Correspondingly, by necessity, the rest of the Jewish People receive much more than they need, so that they can give the terumos and ma’asros without suffering any lack.
The Prophet Malachi declares (Malachi 3:10): “‘Bring all the tithes into the storage-house, and let it be for sustenance in My House. Test Me through this, if you please,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘and see if I will not open up for you the heavenly portals, and pour down upon you blessing without measure.’” Hashem is saying that He will grant us bounty without trying to measure out exactly enough; instead, He will bless us lavishly, giving us more than we need. The reason is that we are setting aside a portion of what we receive, to provide the Kohanim and Levites with their needs.
But when someone disregards Hashem’s instructions and withholds the terumos and ma’asros, Hashem deals with him according to the strict letter of the law. He receives no more than the exact minimum that he needs – an amount equal to the terumos and ma’asros that he should have given to the Kohanim and the Levites. This is the lesson that the Midrash teaches.
In Devarim 15:7-11, the Torah exhorts us to care for the poor members of our people. The Torah passage begins (ibid. 15:7): “When there is a destitute person in your midst … you must not close your hand to your destitute brother.” The passage concludes (ibid. 15:11): “Destitute people will never cease to exist within the world. Therefore I command you, saying: You surely must open your hand to your brother, your poor, and your destitute, in your land.” Two related questions arise concerning this command.
1. Our Sages infer from this passage that, in regard to giving charity, whoever is more closely related to the giver is accorded greater priority, if a choice must be made among various potential recipients (Sifrei Devarim 133). But with other mitzvos, such as tzitzis or tefillin, there is no such specification. Each mitzvah has its basic laws, but beyond these the Torah does not tell a person how, when, and where to fulfill the mitzvah. Why is the mitzvah of charity different?
2. We see that the Torah stresses the relationship between the giver and the needy recipient. The opening verse of the passage states: “When there is a destitute person in your midst [the Hebrew word is bach, meaning literally in you] … you must not close your hand to your destitute brother.” Similarly, in the closing verse, the Torah speaks of “your poor, your destitute.” Why does the Torah stress this factor?
The answers to these questions follow easily from what we have discussed above. When Hashem makes a person poor, it is not necessarily to punish him for his sins. Rather, in certain cases, Hashem makes a person poor in order to benefit the rich. This is shown by the fact that Hashem sometimes miraculously rescues a poor man from a dire situation while still leaving him in a state of poverty (see Shabbos 53b for an example). When this happens, we know that the man was made poor only in order to absorb the suffering that otherwise would befall the rich.
This is the message behind the Torah passage we quoted above. The phrase “your poor” refers to a person who lives in poverty as a service, so to speak, to you. Hence Hashem directed that each person, when dispensing charity, should give priority to his own relatives. Hashem selects certain people from each family to bear the burden of strict justice, living with the barest minimum, while the rest of the family lives in comfort.
As for the amount that a wealthy person should give, in truth he should give everything he has beyond what he himself needs in order to live. Hashem gives a person material assets only to sustain himself over the course of his lifetime, not for any other purpose. We see this from an episode in the Gemara (Gittin 47a). When R. Shimon ben Lakish was about to die, he saw that he was going to leave over a kab (about 1.4 liters) of saffron. He described this as illustrating the saying (Tehillim 49:11): “Wise men die, and the fools and the boors perish together, leaving their wealth to others.” He lamented having left over a small extra asset, rather than using it to benefit others.
One who shuts his eyes to the poor, failing to show regard for them, is straying from the path of wisdom. His attitude is the exact opposite of the proper one. He acts as if Hashem gave him wealth so he could live like a king.
This was Elimelech’s error. He would say: “Kingship is coming to me.” He felt he should hold onto his royal grandeur. Previously he had provided for the poor, but when people came flocking to him during the famine, he fled to a foreign land. He did not fully appreciate the principle that the rich are given their wealth in order to care for the poor.
The Maggid concludes by taking the idea a step further, stating that the obligation to give to others applies not only to wealth, but also to a person’s other assets. When a person sees that Hashem has given him a special endowment, such as a exceptional physical strength or wisdom, he should realize that he is supposed to direct its use to the benefit of the whole community.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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