In many places in the Torah, we're told to help others. Special mention is made of the orphan, the widow, the stranger in the community and the Levite (who did not own land, but depended upon the tithes and gifts of the people). All of these people were vulnerable in various ways, and all needed help from others. Today, we can extend this list to include those in need of aid for any reason – we should offer assistance in some way.
In the portion of Behar – the first of this week's double Torah reading – the Torah specifically mentions the poor among us. In four different verses (25:25, 35, 39 and 47), the Torah recognizes that one's fellow community member might already be or become poor for various reasons. In the subsequent passages to each of these verses, the Torah commands us to be sensitive to their needs and to help them.
There are many ways to assist the poor. One is through giving tzedakah – direct financial aid (money, food, clothes) to persons in need or to groups that help those persons (Jewish federations, food pantries, clothing thrift shops, free-loan societies).
Another way is through performing acts of gemilut chasadim ("lovingkindness"), such as volunteering to help sort, pack and deliver food to the needy. You can help people in need of debt relief or those who could lose their homes. You can work for better employment opportunities and health care that will not just aid the poor but benefit everyone.
All these problems existed in ancient times – the Torah speaks of them – and they exist today. We were commanded to act then, and we're commanded to act now.
We should also watch for new economic developments, and just what impact they may have on the poor, both locally and on the national or world scene. One example arose recently. It has been suggested that the Postal Service issue a new stamp that wouldn't change when rates increase.
In this way, an individual could buy stamps at the current (lower) price, and then continue to use them even after the rate increases. You could buy a large supply of stamps now to make sure to have them for future use. Also, you would not have to buy stamps of small denominations after a rate increase to supplement the older ones, which would save the Postal Service in printing costs.
At first glance, this suggestion of a "forever" stamp sounds good. However, it would actually be very unfair to poorer people. Wealthier people, organizations and businesses could buy loads of stamps at the current (lower) price, and then continue to use them after a rate increase. This would only cause rates to increase even more; see the backlash here? The poor would essentially be paying higher postage for the same mail.
Thus, we should watch for the implications of our actions.
Consequences of Choice
In the Torah portion of Bechukotai – the second of this week's reading and the final portion in the book of Leviticus – the Torah delineates the good things that would happen if we follow God's laws and the bad things that would happen if we do not. The Torah describes the consequences of our choices (for good or for bad) in very graphic terms. The message in the Torah is addressed to the community as a whole, but each of us has to do our part in creating a just, positive-oriented, caring community.
We end the reading of each book of the Torah with the words of chazak, chazak v'nitchazek – be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another. We must do both – be strong for ourselves and help others become strong. In so doing, we must not forget the poor, for whom the Torah states (in the earlier part of the reading, 25:35): Vehechezakta bo ("You should strengthen him").
Then we can "proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all of its inhabitants thereof."
Rabbi Robert Rubin is the rabbi of Congregation Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park in Philadelphia.