In our exploration of holiness in Leviticus using the methods of Aviah Zornberg we have learned the following:
Vayikra: God speaks to us intimately, using words only we can individually understand. You have to quiet your ego in order to hear.
Tzav: God seeks the broken-hearted. It is through our broken hearts that we can find God. God wishes that we evaluate our ways and treat others with dignity and respect,
Tazria-Metzora: We should cultivate humbleness towards what we find in the Torah. Sections of it that seem strange and primitive may be cast in a new light as our experiences grow — portions of Leviticus take on new relevance as we are drawn into the shadows of a plague. The Torah teaches that holiness is not only about performing glorious spectacle but also about attending to the sick and those whom we perceive as unclear. Holiness is providing order, meaning and reintegration to disorder, isolation, and separation.
Emor: Violence and cruelty beget violence and cruelty. We, too, can be drawn into cycles of vengeance and cruelty. We need see the holy souls in those whom we perceive and impure and unclean.
Now in Parshat Behar, we will see what it means to care for our brothers and sisters.
Vayikra 25:35 (Robert Alter, trans.)
“And should your brother come to ruin and his hand buckle under you, you shall hold him as sojourning settler, and he shall live under you.”
his hand buckle under you: The verb here is more typically associated with the foot, where it has the sense of “stumble.” Because “hand” is a metonym for “power,” the idea is that the person has suffered something we would call economic collapse.
he shall live under you: That is, he shall live under your authority or power, with the understanding that you shall take reasonable steps to allow him to subsist.
If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side.
Artscroll / Saperstein trans.
If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters in your proximity, you shall hold on to him — proselyte and resident — so that he can live with you.
You shall hold on to him: Do not allow him to decline and fall and then it will be difficult to raise him up. Rather strengthen him from the time of the faltering of the hand, i.e. from the time his fortune begins to take a turn for the worse.
To a burden that is on a donkey: While the donkey is still standing in its place and it begins to slip off, one person can grab hold of it and set it in place. Once it has fallen to the ground, five people cannot set it in place.
Proselyte and resident: Even if he is a proselyte or a resident. Who is “a resident”? Any [non-Jew] who accepted upon himself not to worship idols, but eats non-kosher meat [does not care for the other commandments of the Torah].
Rashi’s commentary comes from the midrashic collection,Sifra, and is largely a direct quote. In Midrash Rabbah, the Torah verse, sparks an extended dialogue on the nature of charity, generosity, miserliness, lovingkindness, and poverty. Part of the dialogue is about how we overcome our yetzer hara — our animal spirit. Charity, which is not just money, but any form of generosity, is seen as a powerful way of opening our hearts to holiness. The midrash consuls us to not merely give to the poor, but to contemplate poverty. Poverty can include intellectual and spiritual deficits as well as material lack.
There is one story or parable that combines the complexity of human experience in a particularly interesting way. It contrasts lovingkindness (compassion) with narrow-mindedness, projection, and suspicion. Interestingly it flips the Leviticus line by God, “You shall be for I am holy,” to demand that God show the same lovingkindness that humans, despite their yetzar hara, are capable of:
Midrash Rabbah Vayikra Behar 34:14
In the days of R Tanchuma, Israel was in need of rain. They came to R. Tanchuma and said to him, “Master, decree upon us a fast day so that rain should fall.” He decreed a fast day a first time, then a second, yet rain did not fall. When rain did not fall after the third time he did not repeat his call to fast, rather, he got up and preached to the people, “Everyone should distribute charity to those in need.” A certain individual got up and took all that he had inside his house and went out to distribute it. His ex-wife met him and said to him, “Give me charity, for from the day I left your house, I have not seen anything good.” When he saw her lacking proper clothing and in great distress, he became filled with compassion for her and gave her money. He did this in fulfillment of the Scriptural exhortation, “and do not hide yourself from your kin.” (Isaiah 58:7). A certain individual saw what [this man] was doing, and went up and said to R. Tanchuma, “Rabbi, you are here and transgression is here!” R. Tanchuma said to him, “What did you see?” The man responded , “I saw a particular individual talking to his ex-wife, and not only that, but he gave her coins; if he were not deserving of suspicion of continuing to have relations with her illicitly, he would not have given her those coins.” R. Tanchuma sent for the man and had him brought before him, and when he arrived he said to him, “My son, you surely know that the world, is in a state of distress, and God’s creations are in a state of distress, yet you went and spoke to your ex-wife, and not only that, but you gave her coins. If you were not deserving of suspicion of improper behavior, you would not have given her coins.” The man said to R. Tanchuma, “But did you not preach, ‘and do not hide yourself from your kin?’ You said, ‘Everyone should go out and distribute charity to those in need.’ So I arose to distribute charity; my ex-wife met me and said to me, ‘Give me charity, for from the day I left you house, I have not seen anything good.’ When I saw her lacking proper clothing and in great distress, I became filled with compassion for her and gave her money, in fulfillment of the Scriptural exhortation: and do not hide yourself from your kin.” At that time R. Tanchuma raised his face to Heaven and said before the Holy One, blessed is He, “Master of the Universe! If this individual, who is by nature a cruel creature of flesh and blood, and furthermore not responsible for his ex-wife’s sustenance, nevertheless became filled with compassion toward her and gave her money when he saw her distress, then we, who are your grandchildren, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and furthermore, You are responsible for our sustenance, how much more so should You be filled with compassion toward us!” At that time rain fell and there was relief in the world.