This week’s parashah has a lot to say about wealth, poverty, ownership, and property. We are told that the seventh year, Shemittah, requires, among other things, a remission of loans. Despite the possibility of losing this money, we are encouraged to make loans and are prohibited from charging interest on these transactions. These are very difficult demands which require a lot of generosity and trust on the part of the wealthy. The Ben Ish Hai1 suggests that the way to succeed in these tasks is signalled by the repeated2 use of the word עִמָּךְ, with you, in the Torah’s discussions of how to treat the poor,

ויקרא כה:לה-לו
וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ: אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ: 

 

VaYikra 25:35-36
When your brother becomes impoverished, and his hand slips “with you.” And you will support him, whether alien or resident, and he will live with you. Do not take interest or increase from him. You shall fear your God and your brother will live with you.

 

In order to explain the prevalence of this term, the Ben Ish Hai crafts a very detailed story3 about a merchant who falls on hard times, but emerges with specific wisdom based on his experience:

There once was a wealthy merchant and trader who suffered repeated and great losses to the point where he lost even his principal investment. He ended up with a deficit and was obligated to pay others without the ability to pay off his debt, but his deficit was not revealed to anyone and the debts that he owed to others were not yet due. Still, he was a person of faith and therefore he walked about with happiness in his heart and he wasn’t worried or distressed at all. Therefore his poverty and lack weren’t at all apparent from the look of his face or the way he walked around or from the way he spoke. But his wife knew about [his financial situation] and would say to him, “Why do you walk around, eating and drinking happily? Why are you in such a good mood? The time to pay your debts is coming soon. Your creditors are going to come and sue you, but you don’t have anything to pay with so they’re going to put you in prison!” And he would reply to her, “God is not short-handed; God’s redemption can come in the blink of an eye therefore I don’t worry at all.”

During this time, a Friday came along when he didn’t even have a penny to buy what he needed for Shabbat. He also wasn’t able to pay his tab at the store for what his family had taken during the week, though he usually paid it in full every Friday. He waited until late in the afternoon, but he still didn’t even have a penny to pay towards his debt. However, he did have a neighbor who was also a merchant and was very wealthy. So he said to himself, “God has said, ‘Borrow against me and I will pay you back.’4 So I will go to my neighbor and borrow 50 dinar-coins from him. I’ll promise to pay him back on Sunday for God will definitely produce [the money] for me by then and I’ll be able to pay him back.”

So he went to his neighbor that afternoon while the neighbor was still at his store. He said to him, “I am very impoverished and today is Friday. I still haven’t bought what I need for Shabbat and I also don’t have the money to pay the store-owner for what I purchased this week as I usually do. Lend me 50 dinar-coins and I will pay you on Sunday morning.” But the wealthy neighbor responded that he doesn’t even have a single dinar-coin to give him. The man left his neighbor’s house dejected.

And now the wealthy neighbor said to his wife, “Take a look at our neighbor! He’s such a great cheat! He came to me right before dark to borrow money for Shabbat, and yet he’s walking around happy and in a good mood. If he had really suffered a loss and become impoverished to the point where he doesn’t have provisions for Shabbat, how could he possibly walk around in such a good mood?! So he is obviously just a cheat who wants to exempt himself from paying the communal tax and the set contributions for the poor. He comes to me saying that he is so impoverished because I am one of the elected officers of the city and he wants me to testify to the fact that he is impoverished and that will exempt him from paying in the future.”

His wife said to him, “Maybe he really is impoverished and he doesn’t have what he needs. Perhaps he’s just a person of faith and that’s why he walks around happily and in a good mood, since this is how faith-filled people behave? They don’t internalize worry and aren’t distressed about the future.”

Her husband said back to her, “No, that’s not right. He is definitely a cheat and he has what he needs. If he really didn’t have any money in his pocket, not even enough for what he needs for Shabbat, then why did he wait until late in the afternoon? He should have come to me in the morning! And here’s another proof that he is a cheat: He promised me that he would pay me back on Sunday morning. If he really didn’t have any money today, where would he get the money to pay me back on Sunday? Is he doing business on Shabbat in order to make that money?! He’s definitely a cheat who has what he needs, and he presented himself to me as impoverished only in order to evade the assessment for the communal tax. And I even have a third proof! Here, I’ll ask you. Tell me, what do you think I said to him?”

She said, “You definitely told him that you don’t have any money.” And he said, “Correct. That is exactly what I said to him. But how did you know that? For you know that I have lots of money at the store!”

She said to him, “This is the way of the world. Most of the people who do have [money] claim that they don’t so that other people won’t borrow from them.”

He said to her, “If so, that is your third proof that my words are correct and that he has money. He is only claiming that he doesn’t have any money in order to evade the tax!”

Many days passed and that impoverished merchant encountered some sudden good luck and became very wealthy, whereas his neighbor who hadn’t wanted to lend him money became impoverished himself due to many losses that affected him. And before his downfall became publicly known, he also had a Friday on which he didn’t even have a single penny to buy what he needed for Shabbat or to pay the store-owner for what he spent that week, as was customary. He was hoping through to the late afternoon that from somewhere money would come to him, but it never came. And he figured, “A close neighbor is better than a distant brother! Let me go to my wealthy neighbor and I’ll borrow 50 dinar-coins from him.” He went to the store [of his neighbor] and found that it was already closed and [the owner] was walking with his son through the streets in order to get home for Shabbat. He approached [this neighbor] and said, “I am exceedingly impoverished and I still haven’t bought what I need for Shabbat. And I also haven’t paid the store-owner what I spent this week. I’m begging you to lend me 50 dinar-coins and I will pay you back on Sunday morning.”

The man replied, “Yes, I’ll do that.” And the wealthy man went back to his store and opened it. He gave his neighbor 50 dinar-coins and went back to his house with his son. On the way back, the son said to his father, “Why did you believe what this neighbor said?! For I would say that he is definitely a cheat and he is not impoverished. For if he were impoverished, why didn’t he come to borrow in the morning? And further, why did he say that he would pay you back on Sunday morning? Is he going to do business on Shabbat and sell something in order to pay you back on Sunday?! This is definitely just trickery in order to get 50 dinar-coins and then not pay back anything!” The father said back to him, “My son. This same story happened to me. I once needed to borrow 50 dinar-coins from him late on a Friday afternoon. And I also promised that I would pay him back on Sunday morning. These questions that you are asking, which prove that he does have money and is asking for it falsely, they were also relevant in my story. Yet I know in truth about myself that I was not cheating, that I was really impoverished and I didn’t have anything. Therefore, even with this person, I don’t suspect that he is a cheat, rather I assume that what happened to me happened to him and he did what I did and asked as I asked.”

 

The story highlights the two major blocks that the wealthy have against giving charity or making the unsecured loan. The first is the intellectual block. Making a loan to someone who can’t repay it is not a wise financial decision. The stingy neighbor and the son of the hero of the story each look at the facts on the ground and come to the perfectly rational conclusion: that the person who is asking them for money is not truly in need and is merely trying to trick them. This conclusion is intelligent, but it doesn’t lead to kindness; it leads to close-fistedness. It isn’t the case that the stingy neighbor never gives charity or is always ungenerous. Rather, it happens to be that, in this scenario, his intellect overrides his capacity for giving. His mind is shutting down his heart’s desire to give when he decides that the poor person doesn’t look needy because he doesn’t look unhappy, because he didn’t come at the right moment, and because he still has his fine clothes and status. We all make a similar assessment of worthiness when we decide when and to whom to give charity. This is smart, but not generous. If we want to be generous instead of clever and overcome our inclination to screen for worthy candidates, what we need to do is feel the pain that they feel. We need to train ourselves to trust their narratives and ignore our own suspicions.

The second block that the wealthy encounter is that most of the people they know are wealthy. It isn’t a coincidence, though it seems that way, that the neighbor of the once-wealthy merchant is yet another wealthy merchant! What the story teaches us is that, though the wealthier you are, the more capacity you have to give, it is also often the case that wealth makes it harder for you to give—not because wealth inherently makes a person selfish, but because wealth can insulate you from encountering poverty. And it’s the encounter with poverty that triggers the feeling of empathy that inspires a person to give.

Most of the Torah’s laws of tzedakah center around the harvesting of one’s field. Leket refers to leaving grain that falls during the process of harvesting, shikhehah refers to abandoning forgotten sheaves in the field, and pe’ah refers to leaving the corners of your field unharvested. What these laws implicitly require is that the poor be given access to your field. When you are at the point of your greatest wealth and are reaping your harvest, the laws of leaving produce for the poor to glean force you to have interactions with the poor. As we see in Megillat Rut, these laws allow for the poor to harvest along with the hired workers and the owners of the field.

Shemittah itself also encourages this dynamic. During the Shemittah year, no one is allowed to act as the owner of the land. No one may clear, or weed, or seed the land. Anyone and everyone may eat from the produce of the field—rich and poor, animal and human—and no one may do commerce with it. By temporarily erasing the distinctions between the statuses of owner and gleaner, the owners get a taste of what it means to be poor, of what it means to be unmoored from the earth. The rich also become unsure of where their next meal is coming from since they can’t tend their fields.5 The poor and the rich experience this together, working side by side to collect what they need from the bounty of what God’s land provides.

The moral of this story, according to the Ben Ish Hai, is that everyone has a painful experience, some moment of loss or difficulty that can be channelled for the benefit of someone else. Even wealthy people, who might be generally insulated from the experience of need and financial insecurity, have moments where they feel deprivation and loss. The reason why the Torah repeatedly uses the term עִמָּךְ, with you is to highlight that the only way to truly engage our own generosity is to step into the experience of a poor person. We become able to understand their plight by virtue of having experienced something similar ourselves. We only give when we are truly in a state of being with another who is in need of our help. And the reason why the Ben Ish Hai teaches this lesson by means of a story is that understanding someone’s story and responding emotionally to it is often the only way that we can bring themselves to give. The story allows us to circumvent our defensiveness and tap into our compassion.

In Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, he relates the following story:6 

Rabbi Moshe Leib wanted most earnestly to acquire only one of all the virtues of his teacher Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg: his love of Israel. And he did acquire it and in abundance. For when he fell very ill and lay on his bed for two and a half years, racked with pain, he grew more and more certain that he was suffering for the sake of Israel, and his pain did not grow less, but it was transfigured.

 

The viewpoint of the Ben Ish Hai and the lesson of the story of Rabbi Moshe Leib is that pain is a constant of life. The poor experience it relentlessly; the rich experience it periodically. Trying to avoid it will always be unsuccessful. Nothing will make distress pleasant or easy, but using it for good can make it meaningful, can enable us to access our עִמָּךְ, with you. We can use our own pain to help us understand one another and to become better people. As God said, יִקְרָאֵנִי וְאֶעֱנֵהוּ עִמּוֹ אָנֹכִי בְצָרָה אֲחַלְּצֵהוּ וַאֲכַבְּדֵהוּ, He will call to Me and I will respond to him, I am with him in pain, I will release him and honor him (Tehilim 91:15).

The faith that the protagonist has in God is not what gets him back on his feet financially. According to the Ben Ish Hai, his windfall was due to luck and not on account of his faith. What the hero’s faith enables him to do is remain positive during the time of his suffering, to believe that he’ll survive and recover even when all of the evidence points to the contrary. His faith in God is what keeps him stable, even when he isn’t prosperous. His faith in God is what allows him to give to others and to see his own story reflected in theirs.


1 Yosef Hayyim from Baghdad, 1835-1909.

2 Eleven times over thirteen verses!

3 In fact, the Ben Ish Hai also crafts a second elaborate story on this theme. The second is about a king who hires a tutor to train his son in the ways of ruling a kingdom, and the tutor wounds the prince, so that the prince will understand pain and be able to administer justice with sensitivity to his subjects.

4 See Beitzah 15b where God promises to pay back for the extra expenses of Shabbat. This is not unlike God’s promise in our parashah to increase the land’s production in the year before the Shemittah so as to sustain those who do not work their fields in the seventh year. See VaYikra 25:21-22.

5 VaYikra 25:20.

6 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (Schocken: New York, 1947).