One of the great quotations in the entire Torah is from this week’s reading: “Look, today I set before a blessing and a curse. The blessing if you listen to God’s commandments…”
This is a wonderful a statement of ethical choice, and the foundation of the upcoming season of Teshuvah, return and repentance that begins with the month of Elul which starts Sunday, September 1st. But as important a sentence as it is, it doesn’t match the content of the most valuable teaching in this week’s reading.
The Torah portion of Re’ei, fourth in the book of Deuteronomy, follows a sequence of marvelous Torah portions with yet another remarkable text, one of the most radical statements, in its own way, in the entirety of the Torah. “Ki yihyeh v’cha evyon mei’echad achecha, b’echad sh’arecha, if there is among you a poor man, one of your brothers, within one of your gates, in the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand from your needy brother; ki fato’ach tiftach at yadcha lo, you shall certainly open your hand to him, and give him enough for whatever he lacks—whatever he wants.” (Deuteronomy 15:8)
The commandment is not simply to provide for the needs of the needy, not simply to alleviate their suffering, but to give them what they want: that is, sustenance, security, a decent life. It is much more than we seek to provide in our own American society, in which the safety net seemingly has as many holes as net. It is a powerful, dramatic statement: open your hand, and surely give the needy poor what they ought to have.
This is part of the strong economic agenda of Deuteronomy. No one is supposed to accumulate great wealth or enormous power, and no one is to be left destitute, either. Our moral obligation is to see to it that none of our brothers and sisters is left without what they need to survive.
It is a foundational lesson in the morality of giving. Give not only what someone needs in your opinion—give her or him enough to live on reasonably and with dignity. That is the true measure of tzedakah, of living justly and in righteousness.
Open your hand… and do so freely, and generously.
Because only then will you be able to live long and well, and only then can our society can be repaired.