We now turn to a consideration of the mitzvot that instruct us on how we must treat those who are in a weaker position. Our living as God expects - being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation - requires that we deal fairly with, indeed love, those over whom we have power. Without a steady, sure, and willing adherence to these principles, we largely would live in a world where “might makes right.” Such a life, as we studied in the Torah cycle, is hardly beneficial to anyone, including the powerful, whether one lives inside or on the outer boundaries of society.
If we were in the weaker position, we would want to be treated with justice and mercy and love; so should we treat those who are weaker than we. Peace and harmony and success in a community depend upon our understanding and living true to these mitzvot. So let's begin.
1. (3 Verses)
Leviticus 19:36 36 You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt
Leviticus 19:35 35 You must not act unjustly in a legal case involving measures of length, weight, or volume
Deuteronomy 25:13 13 You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small.
Q1. Why do we begin our discussion of Divine guidance of our relationship with those who are weaker than we with these mitzvot? What do they teach us to do and be?
(There are situations in life, here in business, when one party has a clear advantage over another. The person who has and uses weights and measures in the environment of buying and selling has the power to provide goods and charge for them in a fair and honest manner or instead in an unfair and dishonest manner. The seller really is in the position of a judge, with the power to act justly or pervert justice. Typically, the buyer is completely at the mercy of the seller in such circumstances.
Relying upon our “love of neighbor” principles, we know that when we are in the position of the buyer, we would want the seller to use weights and measures fairly; so should we act when we’re in the position of the seller.)
If these principles were not in effect, what would be the
impact on us and society?
(When we cheat on weights and measures or other such things and get away with it, aren’t we tempted to do so more often and perhaps in other and more serious ways? This is especially worrisome in these sorts of activities in which we think “no one is watching.” In a God-based system, Someone else is watching. We enforce these rules for our own sake and at the behest of that Someone.
It’s not good for the dishonest person either. For some small advantage, the person wastes time, risks reputation, and flirts with crime and punishment. Trust is undermined. Indeed a society in which people cannot trust those who keep weights and measures is an anxious and unstable place, likely full of injustice, and in the terms of the sages, a land from which the Divine Presence has departed.)
What else could we be talking about when we use the term, “weights and measures?”
(The sale of all goods and services? The valuing of expertise, counsel, and advice we give to others? The keeping of one’s word, more generally? The ways in which we measure and account for our own character, emotions, and actions? Etc.)
Why do the mitzvot go so far as to require the keeping of accurate weights and measures and indeed prohibit the keeping of false weights and measures?
(First, this is practical! It’s enforceable, in and of itself, and perhaps ahead of, and separate and apart, from any abuse. Further, it fits with the broader pattern of the mitzvot in teaching us to avoid even taking the first step down what may be a slippery slope to wrongdoing. Finally, it seems to speak to the mechanism we should have in place to weigh and assess much of what we do in life and transactions with others in an accurate and fair fashion.)
2. (2 Verses)
Deuteronomy 22 1-3 1 You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner. 2 If the owner does not reside near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; then you shall return it. 3 You shall do the same with a neighbor’s donkey; you shall do the same with a neighbor’s garment; and you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find. You may not withhold your help.
Exodus 23:5 5 When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back.
Q2. What do these mitzvot add in meaning, importance, and impact?
(The rule regarding the noticing supports and enforces our returning the lost property. The returning restores and makes whole the person to whom the property belongs. The wholeness or holiness - the shalom - of restoration spreads over the finder, the loser, and the lost property to put everything and everyone right. There is a feeling of watchfulness and expectation from the Third Partner, and, upon the restoration, a small piece of the achievement of that time when God is one and God’s Name is One.)
Is it possible that what’s lost might not only be material, but also integrity or spirit or strength?
3. (3 Verses)
Exodus 23:5 5 When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.
Deuteronomy 22:4 4 You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up.
Q3. What specific steps must we take to perform these mitzvot when we see a neighbor in distress in the circumstances that are described?
(Knowing that helping the trapped person (frequently with an animal carrying a load) will take us away at least momentarily from our own pursuits and may delay or limit the achievement of our own personal goals, we must notice and help one who is trapped and burdened, fortifying the person to get back on the path and go on.)
B. What does it mean, broadly conceived, in our own time to “help a person remove a burden from a faltering animal” and then helping the person “lift his burden”? The concept in the mitzvah is perikah, or unloading, and then te’inah, loading.
(It could mean what it appears on the surface to be. We have been trapped and delayed with our animals or possessions or families on the road or other transit in all the many ways one can imagine. Or we could be visibly trapped with any other sort of burden that we carry (perhaps emotional?) that requires the help of another, and we cry out our need to the passerby. We need help first in unloading the burden while we get out of being trapped and then we can re-load to get back on the road. We would certainly want another to stop for us and help us so we can get back and on our way; so we stop for the other and help.)
C. Why is this God’s concern, and why does it become ours?
(The need of one trapped is often great enough to cause a cry out. God hears and looks for human beings to hear and respond as well to the cry. These mitzvot are God’s way of expressing this expectation to each and every one of us.
By the way, there is a special concern about the burden on the animal itself. We won’t address that now but will when we come to other mitzvot that address our duties to the needs of animals per se.)
4. Leviticus 19:16 16 Do not stand by while your fellows blood is shed; I am the Lord.
We’ll focus on the direction here not to stand by idly when a neighbor’s life is in danger. We know what this means literally and on the surface, but the sages go to interesting additional places. Thoughts on where that might be?
(Redeeming a captive, a doctor saving a patient, saving another from financial ruin, thwarting evil designs on another, preventing spiritual loss, preventing one from transgressing, testifying when one testimony makes a crucial difference in a just result in court.)
5. (2 Verses)
Deuteronomy 15:7 7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.
Deuteronomy 15:11 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
Q5. These are the primary mitzvot guiding our supporting the poor. What exactly do they require of us?
These two mitzvot are the cornerstones of the practice of giving tzedakah to the poor. This is commonly considered charity, though the Hebrew word is derived from a word we’ve discussed before, tzedek, meaning righteousness. So, it’s really about doing the right and just thing, here by those in need.
(First, we must not harden our heart, be callous, act as if we don’t know or don’t see or don’t care. Second, the sages go further to say that we should have a good heart and cheerfulness in this matter. Third, once aware, we must open our hand and be helpful if we have the means to help. This could be a loan or a job, too. If we can’t help with money, etc., we’re required to help with kind words, encouragement, friendship, spiritual support.)
Does our response matter to God?
(Again, the tradition says God watches all and blesses one who gives tzedakah with a blessing that, as Chinuch says, is “better for you than many storehouses of gold and silver.”
Here’s a lovely reflection from the Talmud in Sotah (14a): “The Torah - its beginning is the performance of kindness and its end is the performance of kindness.” This means that, through loving acts of kindness toward those with needs, God provides garments to Adam and Eve at the start and buries Moses at the end. So, we, made in God’s image and loving others as ourselves, find essential direction from God to help those in need.)
C. Who is required to give, and to whom, and how?
(All, including the poor themselves, are required to give. There again is a sense of a priority in the language for one’s “brothers.” Indeed there are many lessons in the writings that one’s obligations are first to family and literally to neighbors. But there is also no doubt that as wisdom extends in the prophetic direction the scope of this teaching expands to affect a broader community.
But to each beggar on the street? To every poor person in one’s city? (These are hard questions. But any answer that is not sensitive to the need of all in need, responsive to the call, and generous in meeting the need does not seem to be in sync with God’s expectations.)
As to how, there’s been a remarkable amount of thought and writing on the topic over the centuries. But Maimonides’ order of tzedakah is one of the loveliest and most powerful. Essentially, it says any giving is good, but the giving that is less about the giver and more about promoting the self-sufficiency of the one to whom it’s given is of a higher order.
If giving furthers a dependency or demoralization that actually distances the recipient from the capacity for self-sufficiency, the value of the giving would be severely diminished. If we were in need of support, we would want help that was lovingly given, respectful of our dignity, and helpful to our “getting up on our feet.” So should be our giving to those in need.)
6. (3 Verses)
Leviticus 19:9 9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
Leviticus 23:22 22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 24:19 19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Q6. These mitzvot add to our understanding of our duties to those in need. In non-agricultural ways and times, how could we live true to these directions?
We have a lot of “ground to cover” here, so to speak.
What do these mitzvot have in common?
(They concern the corners, the fringes, the gleanings of our production. One could say it’s the excess, or the overage, or that part that is above-and-beyond our needs. Put another way, it’s that part that’s furthest away from us and closest to others. Maybe it’s also that it’s intended less for us and more for others. Indeed our insisting upon having what we drop or exploiting even at the corners has the feel of greed and going all the way to the end to satisfy the needs of our bloated self.)
B. What, then, is the message of these mitzvot?
(First, there are limits of power and control on “our land.” Indeed, in a fundamental way, we’re stewards, not complete owners of the land. The fact that these mitzvot come from God teaches us that God is the ultimate owner. And the Owner is telling us that we are to use this part of our production to support those in need, rather than being subservient to selfish and possessive tendencies.)
How in the modern world might we act out and be true to the direction of these mitzvot?
(Devote a portion at the edge of our income to those in need. A portion of our attention and caring and creativity. A portion of our land and crop in all the ways those things mean to us. A portion of our belongings, such as clothes and objects that have value but “have been dropped” or “are on the fringes” in our homes and closets.)
But isn’t paying taxes enough?
(We support those in need through the taxes we pay to government. And one could argue that that, too, is a way of living out the call of these mitzvot. But these directions seem to be saying especially that this relationship of land and people, produce and need, intimacy of giving, etc. have a personal connection that is missed in the machinations of the government process. We can’t afford to ignore this dimension and utilize it, too, in our lives, as people whose mission is to be a holy nation.
We see in these mitzvot the operation once again of the great triangular relationship. We use our resources as God directs to the benefit of those in need, and God blesses us and fulfills our need.)
7. Exodus 22:22 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.
Q6. Are these directions regarding the widow and the orphan totally “soft?” If not, how not?
The sages say we should speak kindly and treat the widow and orphan gently with a favorable disposition, though there’s express mention of the authority to discipline an orphan child. What’s the balance that this suggests?
(We see that they are weakened by their loss and perhaps low in spirit, but too much softness will not prepare them for life. Harshness and discipline are two different things.)
If we apply the love of neighbor principle here, who is the neighbor?
(Obviously on one level, it’s the widow or the fatherless child with whom we’re dealing. But our love might also be for the other party, the mother of the child or the child of the mother. Or, interestingly, it could be love for the dead or lost father, whose widow or orphan child we’re called by love of him to show care.)
Conclusion - we have walked through a series of mitzvot today that show us God’s expectations of us in living out duties toward those who are weaker than ourselves. It surely is tempting to think we can avoid these duties because we’re powerful enough to do so. God expects otherwise in the clearest of terms. We love our neighbor as ourself in all the circumstances we’ve studied when we see ourselves in the role of the weak, when we see God’s presence with the weak, beckoning our attention and our help, and when we extend our hand to help in service to them and in service to the One True Power who directs us on the way.
BUT we’re not done with this topic. Next week we’ll discuss our duties to those who, in many ways, are even weaker than the people we discussed today, and fundamentally more distant. This Divine concern about those in need, those in the weaker position, and those who are distant from us (and our duties to them) is as broad and deep as any in the Bible.