Parshas Re-eh (5768)
In this week's Torah portion, Parshas Re'eh, we find the mitzvah of Tzedakah, or charity. The Torah tells us: "If there shall be a destitute person among you ... you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
The wording the Torah uses in expressing this commandment is puzzling. After all, if it is forbidden to "close your hand" to the poor, doesn't it go without saying that you are required to open it? What is the Torah trying to teach us by emphasizing this point? Furthermore, after stating that you should lend him his requirement, why does the Torah add the extra words "whatever is lacking to him"?
The Vilna Gaon explains that while a person is obligated to give charity, he is not supposed to disperse it equally to each poor person. There are laws governing to whom one must give precedence when distributing charity, such as family members or people in his community, and the needs of each poor person must be assessed when determining how much to give them.
In fact, the Talmud in Kesubos 67b goes so far as to say that from the "extra" words "whatever is lacking to him" in the verse mentioned above, we learn that if the poor person was accustomed to having a fancy horse to ride on, or other such luxuries, we should do our best to accommodate him and to restore him to his original state. In other words, the Torah is asking us to be sensitive not just to the poor person's physical and material needs, but to his psychological needs as well. And although he now has bread and water thanks to the tzedakah we gave him, if he still "feels poor" because he was used to having so much more, we should try our best to get him back to the way he once was (within limits, of course).
Our verses, explains the Vilna Gaon, allude to the requirement to take these considerations into account when giving tzedakah. When a person closes his hand and looks at his fingers, they all appear to be equal in length, although opening one's hand reveals that this is clearly not the case. The Torah already commanded a person to be merciful to our needy brethren and takes for granted that we will help meet their needs. Now it comes to emphasize that the manner in which we do so should not be one in which we indiscriminately give equal amounts to each beggar, as symbolized by a closed hand, but rather we should "open our hands" and realize that each poor person's needs as well as our obligation to him aren't the same, and we should disperse our charity accordingly.
What this means for all of us is that although, when it comes to dispensing charity, most Jews have this almost inexplicable, inner need to give 18 dollars (the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai, which means "life" or "alive") to every poor person who knocks at their door, we should pause a moment to reflect on our different-sized fingers and think about each poor person's individual needs - some people need small change, some just need a kind word or a smile, some need major sums etc. - and then give the tzedakah (of course, it can always be a multiple of 18, if that's what makes you happy!).