To Walk Behind God

The print advertisements for Patek Phillippe, a luxury watch brand, often show a father with his son along with the tag line, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation.”The message is clear. With things of great worth, we can never claim real ownership, only a type of guardianship.

How much more so for things of genuine value!

More importantly, how does the idea of “guardianship” inform how we are to live as Jews? In Vayikra 19, often referred to simply as “the holiness code”, we are given a number of directives. Among them, “And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger,” “You shall not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him… You shall not curse the deaf, nor shall put a stumbling block before the blind…,”and“You shall not hate your brother in your heart… you love your neighbor as yourself.”

In each of these, and in the many proscriptions for how we are to conduct ourselves in the world, we are clearly being directed in how to behave toward those of lesser power and standing in society – the poor, the stranger, the worker, the deaf and blind. In a world such as ours, in which it seems that the pursuit of wealth and power is the only ethos, what are we to make of these commands?

Why would we oppose the powerful allure of ego and possession? Why would we want to behave counter to the seduction of the world. Our reason is simple and it is given at the conclusion of each of these directives. “Because I am the Lord Your God.”

* * *

Amongst the many awe-inspiring commands given us in the Torah, “You shall walk behind the Lord your God” has often delighted and perplexed me the most. I have sometimes imagined in my mind a youngster walking behind his father on the beach, trying to match his footsteps into the footprints and stride of his father. Even leaping forward, he fell short. If a child cannot keep pace with his father, how could we ever “walk behind” an infinite, omnipotent, Almighty God?

There is only one way. By doing as God instructs because “I am the Lord your God.” Clothing the naked, visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting the mourners. Demonstrating genuine loving-kindness. Not only giving but giving in a way that respects the needs of the recipient more than the ego of the giver or, as Rav Soloveitchik put it, trying not merely to give tzedakah, but striving to become a tzadik.

To “walk behind God”, to emulate His mercy and kindness.” But God is Makor Hachesed. We are merely human and, being human, we cannot always – perhaps rarely – reach the goal of loving-kindness in our giving. Our very “human-ness” anticipates Maimonides’ stages of tzedakah, which delineates not just giving, but how we give, from least desirable to greatest.

And what is the highest, or greatest, level of tzedakah?“The highest degree which there is none higher,” writes the Rambam, “is the one who upholds the hand of an Israelite reduced to poverty by handing that person a loan.” Why? Because this loan frees him from the need to beg from others. It frees the needy from exposing his need.

When the Torah warns, “when your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself– vehechezakta bo – you shall uphold him,” Rashi explains that the intent is to ensure the impov­erished one will not fall completely and need to come on to charity. Recognize his weakness and don’t let him fall! So fundamental is the precept to provide a loan that our Sages stated that “a man is repulsive, despicable, abominable, rotten, and abhorrent, so much so that his loathsomeness is almost as great as that of an idol-worshipper, if he has the means yet withdraws his hand from this religious obligation.”

The injunction to provide a loan could not be more emphatic and yet, in the midst of tens of ethical-moral principles enunciated in Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah states, Im kesef talveh et ami, et heani imach – “if you will lend money to my people, to the poor man among you, do not press him for repayment.” If?

How could the Torah give us a choice when it comes to this essential precept. How can an obligation be a choice? While some commentators sought to explain away this “if” it remains to reconcile how the Torah, so focused on the needy, would provide an “escape hatch” from fulfilling this basic human obligation to help. Judaism seeks ways and means of teaching Jews why they should help others, not why they shouldn’t. Why then the “If you will lend”?

I think that this is where the lessons of the holiness code are most illuminating. Giving tzedakah is the most basic way we display our godliness. But, even in providing for basic needs, we can discern that there is a deeper, most fundamental need.

“And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger.” Why? Why not, while you are gleaning your vineyard simply complete the task and give the fruits to those in need? Because to do so would deprive them of the opportunity to work for what they need; it would deprive them of the dignity of earning. “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind.” Why not? Because to do so is to take unfair advantage of a disability. A level playing field allows for dignity.

The rich and the strong do not need the protection of these precepts. The vulnerable do. But, being in need does not strip them of the most essential aspect of being human. The poor are not of any lesser value than us, nor are they different than us. The wealth and power we possess do not belong to us. It is lent to us. We are mere guardians. Therefore, when we give to the poor, we must do so in such a way that the fundamental equality of the giver and receiver is acknowledged.

Giving is our obligation. We are called to do so in a way that will not make us feel superior, and in a way that will not make the poor person feel inferior.

These noble feelings and Godly sensitivities must emanate from within oneself. They cannot be decreed from On High. It is for this reason, says the Maharal, that the Torah used the “If.” Charity, philanthropy, benevolence, sharing, and giving must all result from an inner need, an intrinsic understanding and identifi­cation with the need, the cause, the receiver.

To lend, to share and to give must be understood as fulfilling the will of God, representing His interests, and executing His desires. This understanding cannot be commanded. It is a consequence of “if”.

The Or Hachayim said that imkesef talveh– “If you will lend” – means that if you have funds beyond your needs, then “to the poor among you,” they should go; in fact, the means you “possess” you are actually merely holding in trust. It rightfully belongs to the poor.

The Rambam codifies that “if one writes his possessions over to one of his sons, the son is merely an apotropus– a “guardian,” not an owner. So, the Chatam Sofer taught that when God gives one of His sons wealth, the son is merely a guardian, to guard the wealth and share it with the less fortunate brothers. All that we possess in this physical world is a pikadon. Eventually, it is all returned to the Baal Habayit.

While the pikadon is entrusted to us, we are held accountable for all that we do with it. It is only our good deeds which precede us to Judgment. The Siftei Kohen once exclaimed that the world would have been better off without money. It is the root of all evil, envy, and strife. But im kesef, if money was created and we must make use of it, then talveh et ami – use it constructively, judiciously, and wisely. Share it. It is for this reason that the Chachamim teach that gemilut chasadim is greater than tzedakah.

How do we “choose” to give?

Rashi continues in his comment on the phrase et heant imach. “If you will lend the poor man…” – imach, within you, hevei mistakel beatzmecha keilu atah ani. If you feel the God given desire to give? Then look at yourself as if you are the poor man. To give others needs mitgefiel.

It is not an easy task to learn empathy, to wear another man’s shoes. Particularly if you have always enjoyed comfort and means.

E. V. Lucas tells of a school in England where compassion is taught. In the course of the term every child has one “blind day”, one “deaf day”, etc.

This method begins to help the child briefly experience as another, less fortunate, might experience. Perhaps heavy-handed, but this simple experience suggests what we all need – conscious training in how to “see the world” through another’s eyes and to establish a real connection with those not like me.

Hevei mistakel beatzmecha keilu atah ani.