Caring for Yourself and Others

Re'eh By :  Lauren Eichler Berkun JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Aug 3, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

“ATTENTION PLEASE: In the event of a change in cabin pressure, first place the oxygen mask on your own face and then assist the child sitting next to you.” This airline announcement has always troubled me. It is difficult to imagine that in the midst of a crisis, a parent would allow a child to suffer while attending to his or her own needs. However, the practical wisdom of these instructions teaches us that there are times when we must take care of ourselves first, despite our best instincts.

This week’s Torah portion also invites us to reflect upon the delicate balance between caring for others and caring for ourselves. As Deuteronomy Chapter 15 explores the mitzvah of providing for the poor, the Torah presents a paradoxical message. At first, the Torah claims that “there shall be no needy among you” (Deut. 15:4), as long as the Israelites observe God’s commandments to take care of the poor. However, seven verses later, the Torah states, “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you to open your hand to the poor” (Deut. 15:11). In an attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction, the commentators interpret the first statement in a fascinating way. Due to the singular form of the verse, “there shall be no needy among you (v. 4),” the rabbis understood this pronouncement as a reference to the individual: “there shall not be in you a destitute person.” In other words, the Torah commands us to avoid our own poverty. As Rav Yehudah taught in the name of Rav:

The verse states, “In you there will be no destitute” (Deut. 15:4). This teaches that your financial concerns take precedence over those of everyone else (Baba Metzia 33a).

 The mitzvah of ensuring one’s own financial security has many different applications in Jewish law. In the realm of tzedakah, it is forbidden to impoverish oneself through exceedingly generous donations. The Talmud sets the limit for the maximum charitable contribution at twenty percent of one’s wealth (Ketubot 50a). In addition, Jewish law suggests that charity begins in the home:

The Torah commands that the needy of his “household” comes first, then the poor of his city, and they in turn have priority over the poor of another city?Rabbi Saadiah wrote that a person is required to put his own sustenance first, and is not duty bound to give charity to others until after providing for his own (Tur, Yoreh Deah 251).

This Jewish strategy of prioritizing yourself first and then giving to those nearest you, in relation and in location, may seem painfully obvious to the modern American Jew. One might argue that in American society, we have taken the focus on self-preservation to an unhealthy extreme. Rabbis are certainly not rushing to lecture their congregants about the importance of putting oneself first and avoiding excessive generosity. In this culture, the desire to amass more and more wealth creates in us the illusion of relative “poverty.” Do I ever have enough for myself and for my family to give to others? Especially at this time of frightening market volatility, the fear for our future financial security may prevent many of us from ever giving freely to charity.

Therefore, the Talmud offers an important counterbalance to its message of self-concern. While Rav taught that one’s financial concerns take precedence over those of everyone else, he continued with this caveat:

“But whoever establishes such [a way of life] for himself will, in the end, come to poverty” (Bava Metzia 33a)

As Rashi explains, a person who constantly fears for his own loss will throw off “the yoke of gemilut hasadim and tzedakah.” When one feels exempt from the obligation to act charitably, his is doomed to an impoverished life. In fact, Yoseph Karo, the great 16th century legal codifier, writes that everyone is required to give tzedakah. “Even the indigent person sustained by charity must give from what has been given to him” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 248).

However, despite these rabbinic warnings against egocentric behavior, I believe that the Torah still provides us with a powerful message when it teaches that “There shall not be in you a needy person (ev’yon)” (Deut. 15:4). The choice of language is instructive. The Hebrew word used in this verse for a needy person, “ev’yon,” is not the most common expression for a poor person (“oni”). Rashi explains the etymology of the word “ev’yon” from the Hebrew word “ta’avah,” longing or desire. Therefore, according to Rashi, an “ev’yon” is one “who longs for everything.”

The true danger of living with a sense of longing is that we feel bereft of the ability to give openly to others. When we are depleted of our own resources, we are incapable of providing for those around us. A rabbi who does not attend to her own spiritual needs will not be able to teach and inspire others. A doctor who does not safeguard his own health will lack the strength to heal the sick. A parent who does not find fulfillment and meaning in his own life will not be able to empower and guide his children.

The Torah commands us to avoid becoming an “ev’yon” – a person who is longing for everything. The purpose of this mitzvah is not to avoid becoming a giving person – to barricade ourselves from the world and to hold on greedily to what little we have. I believe that the Torah is encouraging us to address the longings within ourselves so that we may become more and more generous with those around us. This Shabbat, let us ask ourselves about the “poverty” in our lives. Do we long for more quality time with friends? Do we long for a deeper personal connection with God through prayer and study? Do we long for greater energy and well being through exercise and meditation? Perhaps by focusing on the self in this way, and by attending to our personal longings, we will have much more to give to our family, to our community, and to the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Berkun’s commentary on Parashat Re’eh have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.