According to Jewish law, a person is not to give away more than a fifth of his wealth, but the brothers often exceeded this limit. Their sin was giving too much charity!
This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), meaning, “to see” and referring to the requirement for mankind to see how easy it is to live a live full of blessing and happiness. For stats fans: Re’eh is the longest Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy, consisting of 7,442 Hebrew letters, 1,932 Hebrew words, and 126 verses.
There are many themes and mitzvot (commandments) in this week’s reading, with the importance of charity being one of them. As the Torah says, “If there be a poor person among you…do not harden your heart nor close your hand tight against your impoverished brother.”
As one surely realizes, this is one of the Biblical sources for the requirement to give charity.
But that’s not all. The Torah adds, “You shall surely open your hand to him and provide him with the necessities that he lacks.”
What Does it Mean to be Meticulous in Giving Charity?
This seems to be a call for a higher and more meticulous level of charity not covered by the first verse.
I came across a story that seems to illustrate what it means to “open your hand” and to give charity in a much more meticulous manner than is truly required.
There was once a Jew in the city of Vilna (Lithuania) who took a great interest in local history. One of the things he enjoyed in the course of his research was going to the old Jewish cemetery to examine the tombstones and study their inscriptions. Indeed, there is a wealth of history and information that can be derived from Jewish tombstones anywhere.
One day, he came across two adjacent graves. According to the inscriptions, the two men were brothers who were both distinct Torah scholars and both extremely charitable.
But then he noticed something out of the ordinary.
The two tombstones shared an inscription taken from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 31. On the first tombstone it was written, “she extended her palm (kappah) to the poor” and on the second tombstone the verse was completed with the words, “and she stretched out her hand (yadeha) to the pauper.”
This was very weird. Not only is it rare to find two tombstones sharing a single verse or inscription, but the verse that was chosen is traditionally used on the tombstones of females. It is never used on the tombstones of men.
How Do Exemplary Torah Scholars Go Bankrupt?
The man was puzzled and sought assistance from one of the elder members of the community. And indeed, the elder fellow had a story to share regarding the tombstones.
The brothers were Torah scholars of the highest order, and they were also wealthy and extremely generous. They were very respected and admired in the community.
Suddenly, their fortunes took a turn for the worse. Some of their businesses failed. Their investments stagnated. People began to wonder why such a thing would happen to such sterling individuals.
The Rabbinical Court of Vilna also heard the stories. “How can this be,” declared one of the judges, “that two such exemplary Torah scholars should be going bankrupt? We have to do something about it.”
“But what can we do about it?” asked another judge. “Should we give them a loan?”
“No, of course not,” said the first judge. “We have to get to the bottom of this and correct it.”
“But how?” said the second judge.
“There is a simple way,” offered a third judge. “We have to summon the brothers to court and interrogate them about everything they’ve done for the past few years.”
What Was their Sin? Too Much Charity?
The Rabbinical Court questioned the brothers for hours and discovered only one instance of wrongdoing.
What was their sin?
According to Jewish law, a person is not to give away more than a fifth of his wealth to charity, but the brothers often exceeded this limit. Their sin was giving too much charity!
What was to be done about this?
The Rabbinical court decided that the brothers could not be trusted to stay within the prescribed limits. Therefore, they themselves took control of the brothers’ finances and decreed that all charitable donations must go through them the court.
And so it was. When the poor came to the brothers’ asking for help, they were sent to the Rabbinical court.
“We’ve been to them already,” the poor would protest, “and they are not nearly as generous as you’ve always been. We’ll never feed our children on what the administrator gives us.”
The brothers’ hearts melted, but what could they do? They didn’t have control of their money. So they began to give away the silver in their cabinets. Eventually, the brothers were left with a single silver spoon between them.
The next day, when a beggar approached each of the brothers, they broke the last spoon in half. One took the spoon part and gave it to the first beggar, and the other took the handle and gave it to the second beggar.
This wonderful act of charity was memorialized on their tombstones, conveyed by means of a play-on-words. As mentioned, the beginning of the verse on the first tombstone was, “She extended her palm (kappah) to the poor”. Kappah also means “her spoon.” The completion of the verse on the second tombstone was, “And she stretched out her hand (yadeha) to the pauper.” Yadeha also means “her handle.”
May we try to emulate their kind ways.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel