Shabbos Parashas Behar

Parashas Behar includes a section on caring for the poor. The Midrash expounds (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9-10):
It was taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “Vengeance against Yisrael is at the hands of the poor, as it is written (Devarim 15:9), ‘And he [the pauper] will cry out against you to Hashem, and there will be a sin upon you.’ And vengeance against Edom is at the hands of Yisrael, as it is written (Yechezkel 25:14): ‘And I shall set My vengeance against Edom in the hands of My people Yisrael.’”
R. Abahu taught in the name of R. Eliezer: “We have to be grateful to the fakers among them [the beggars], for without these fakers, any time a beggar would ask a person for alms and be turned away, the person would be immediately punished by death. As it is written, ‘and he will cry out against you.’ And it is written (Yechezkel 18:4): ‘The soul that sins, it will die (הנפש החוטאת היא תמות).’”
The Maggid calls attention to the added wordהיא  in Yechezkel 18:4. This word could have been left out, and the verse would then read: “The soul that sins will die.” In the context of the original passage in Yechezkel, the import of the added word is very clear, for the passage is stressing that a son will not be punished for his father’s sins, nor a father for his son’s sin, but rather the sinner himself will be punished. But in the context of the Midrash, the import of the added word is not immediately clear. The Maggid sets out to explain the import of this added word.
The Maggid begins by analyzing the quotation from Devarim 15:9. The verse ends by saying “there will be a sin upon you” (והיה בך חטא). The Torah could have simply written וחטאת, and then the closing phrase would read, “and you will have sinned.” The word והיה bears a suggestion of something being already at hand, but it is not clear what.
To explain the matter, the Maggid refers us to his commentary on parashas Nitzavim, in a segment dealing with Devarim 29:17‑19. There he notes that in this world it actually happens quite often that the punishment for a sin falls on someone other than the sinner himself. This is in line with the principle that all Jews are responsible for each other; all Jews are, so to speak, guarantors for each other (כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה). It is common for the righteous and upright to bear the measure of punishment generated by the sins of their generation, and to be subjected to suffering, even though they are pure and innocent of any wrongdoing, and it is others who have sinned. In this vein, it is written (Yeshayah 53:4-6): “But in truth it was our ills that he bore and our pains that he carried … he was wounded on account of our rebellious sins and crushed on account of our iniquities … Hashem inflicted upon him the iniquity of us all.”
The message of the Midrash is along these lines. When the Midrash states that vengeance against Edom is at the hands of Yisrael, it is saying that Yisrael now suffers the afflictions that Edom deserves. In the end of days it will be different; as the Torah indicates in Devarim 30:7, the curses will then fall, as they should, on the sinners themselves. But now the pattern in force is as we have described. Similarly, when the Midrash states that vengeance against Yisrael is at the hands of the poor, it is saying that the poor among us suffer on account of the sins of the community at large.
We can now understand easily why it is incumbent on us to care for the poor.  Since the poor bear the yoke of suffering for our sins, it is only right that we bear the yoke of providing for them. Now, we might wonder why Hashem set up this system where some people suffer on account of other people’s sins. In fact, this system is an expression of Hashem’s wisdom and kindness, for it is designed to minimize the overall burden of punishment.
We can bring out the idea with a simple analogy. Suppose a person who owes money to several creditors runs away and disappears. If there was a guarantor on the loans, the creditors will turn to the guarantor. But the creditors will not insist that the guarantor pay the entire amount of the loans down to the last penny, for they realize that he received nothing from them. They will be satisfied if the guarantor pays a sizable percentage of the amounts owed. However, if the creditors manage to find the debtor himself, they surely will not be willing to forego anything. It is only with the guarantor that they will be lenient.
Similarly, Hashem set up a system where he releases sinners from punishment they deserve and imposes the punishment instead on others, in the capacity of guarantors, so that He can be lenient in dispensing the punishment. But this system works only if we are compassionate towards those who suffer, such as the poor. If we turn a blind eye to a pauper, he will cry out to Hashem, saying: “Why do I have to suffer more than others?” And then Hashem’s Attribute of Justice will be aroused to investigate the matter, so to speak, and it will come out that this pauper did not deserve the afflictions he suffered, but was subjected to them on account of someone else’s sin. This is what the Torah means when it says that the pauper will “cry out against you to Hashem, and there will be a sin upon you.” The sin the pauper is suffering from will be pinned on the person who actually committed it.
The Midrash goes on to say that we have to be grateful to the fakers among the beggars, for they give us an excuse for not giving charity. And then the Midrash describes the harsh treatment we would get if we did not have this excuse. If a person turned away a pauper who is suffering for a sin that the person himself committed, Hashem would reverse course and punish the person himself, and then the punishment would be in full measure – with no leniency, just as a creditor does not give to the debtor himself the leniency that he gives to guarantors.
This last point is reflected in the verse in Yechezkel that the Midrash quotes: “The soul that sins, it will die.” If a person commits a sin that carries the death penalty, Hashem might deflect the penalty from him and instead cast on another person the lesser suffering of poverty. If this happens, and then the sinner refuses to help the person who was made a pauper on account of his sin, Hashem goes back to the sinner himself. And once Hashem is dealing directly with the soul that sinned, it will die.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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