Parashas Behar

The second half of parashas Behar discusses caring for the poor. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9-10):
It is taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “Vengeance against the Jewish People is in the hands of the poor, as it is written (Devarim 15:9): ‘[Beware lest there be a villainous thought in your heart, saying: “The seventh year is approaching, the year of remission,” and you look with ill will upon your destitute brother and you refuse to give to him], and he cries out against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you.’ Vengeance against Edom is in the hands of the Jewish People, as it is written (Yechezkel 25:14): “I will place My vengeance against Edom in the hands of my people Yisrael.’” R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Eliezer: “We should be grateful to the connivers among them [the poor], for were it not for the connivers among them, if one of them [the poor] asked [for charity] from a person and he sent him back [empty-handed], the person would be immediately punished with death. For it is written (Devarim 15:9), ‘and he cries out against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you,’ and elsewhere it is written (Yechezkel 18:4, 20): ‘the soul that sins will die (הנפש החוטאת היא תמות).’”
The Maggid raises two questions about this Midrash. The first question concerns the phrase “and he cries out against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you (וקרא עליך אל ה' והיה בך חטא).” The wording here is odd; it would have been more natural to write “and he cries out against you to Hashem, and you will have sinned (וקרא עליך אל ה' וחטאת).” And so the Maggid asks: What is the reason behind this odd wording?
The second question concerns the verses in Yechezkel from which the Midrash quotes. In the context of the passage in Yechezkel 18, the import of the word היא is clear: Hashem is saying that He will not take another soul as ransom for the one that sinned, but rather the soul that sinned itself will be the one that dies. Thus, in Yechezkel 18:20 it is written: “The soul that sinned [itself] will die – the son will not bear the sin of the father, nor will the father bear the sin of the son.” It is not clear, however, what the significance of the word היא is in the context of the Midrash. And so the Maggid asks: What point is being brought out by the special emphasis on the fact that the soul that sinned is itself the one that will be punished?
In answering these questions, the Maggid first notes that often Hashem actually does punish a person for someone else’s sin. In particular, the righteous and upright among us, who are free of fault, typically bear the burden of punishments and afflictions for the sins of the Jews of the generation as a whole, in line with the principle that all Jews are guarantors for each other (Shevuos 39a). Similarly, the Jews often bear the burden of punishment for the sins of mankind as a whole. Yeshayah 53 describes how all mankind will ultimately recognize this fact in the end of days. It is in this vein that the Midrash tells us that “vengeance against Edom is in the hands of the Jewish People.” The Midrash is saying that the Jewish People bear the punishment that the Edomites deserve for their sinning. Similarly, when the Midrash tells us that “vengeance against the Jewish People is in the hands of the poor,” it is saying that Jewish paupers bear punishment on behalf of the Jewish People as a whole. Accordingly, it is no mystery why Hashem commanded us, particularly the people of means, to bear the yoke of providing sustenance to the poor. It behooves us to so, for the poor are bearing an even heavier yoke on our behalf – the yoke of punishment for many of the sins that we as a whole commit.
We might well wonder why Hashem deals out punishment in this way. The answer is that Hashem takes this course out of kindness, in order to minimize the total amount of punishment that He dispenses. The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Suppose a person runs away from someone he owes money to. If the creditor finds the debtor, he will demand to be paid the full amount owed. But if the creditor does not find the debtor, and ends up turning to a guarantor for payment, he will not be so hard-nosed. He will not insist on full payment down to the last penny, for he recognizes that the guarantor did not take anything from him. Instead, the creditor will be lenient and allow the guarantor to discharge the debt by paying a fraction of the amount owed. Hashem operates in a similar matter in exacting punishment for sin. He turns a blind eye to the sinner, so to speak, and allows him to flee. Afterward, He turns to the righteous, in their role as guarantors, and seeks retribution from them, imposing on them a decree of suffering, frequently the suffering of poverty. In doing so, He is not as strict with them as He would have been with the sinner himself, for He recognizes that those He is turning to did no wrong.
But Hashem operates in this way only if we show compassion to the poor. If we callously ignore the poor, they cry out to Hashem against us, saying: “Why is this great wrath being directed toward me, that I am being made to suffer such poverty?” The poor person’s cry arouses the Attribute of Justice, calling attention to the fact that he committed no sin, but instead is suffering punishment on our behalf. The responsibility for our sins is then shifted away from the poor person and placed back upon us. This is what the Torah means when it says that if you refuse to give to a poor person, he will cry out against you to Hashem, and “it will be a sin upon you.”
Thus, R. Abbahu says in the name of R. Eliezer: “We should be grateful to the connivers among them [the poor], for were it not for the connivers among them, if one of them [the poor] asked [for charity] from a person and he sent him back [empty-handed], the person would be immediately punished with death.” The connivers give us an excuse for occasionally refusing to give. If not for this excuse, our sending away a beggar empty-handed would lead Hashem to place the full brunt of punishment for our sins on us. The two verses that R. Eliezer quotes to prove his point convey this message very well. The first verse, as we just explained, teaches that a person’s refusal to aid the poor leads Hashem to redirect His demand for “payment” for his sins away from them and back to him. The second verse then tells us what happens when this occurs. To a person being punished on behalf of someone else, Hashem is lenient and imposes only monetary hardship, a lesser degree of punishment than what the sinner himself was obligated to pay. But if Hashem is led to exact punishment from the sinner himself, the sinner will die – that is, he will be made to pay the full debt of punishment designated for the sin he committed. Accordingly, the verse in Yechzekel places special emphasis on the fact that the sinner himself is the one being punished, for this fact makes a crucial difference in the punishment imposed.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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