In my graduate school days, when I was training for a career in psychology, one of my closest friends was pursuing a degree in business management. He knew that to succeed in business, he would have to understand what “makes people tick”; to gain that understanding, he wanted to “pick my brain.”
I knew I had a tendency to be idealistic, and I counted on his sound business sense to help me remain grounded in the practical realities of life.
We often disagreed upon fundamental matters. The most formidable gap between us was in our understanding of how to assess the value of another person. His approach was, “Show me his bottom line. If I have access to his financial statement, to his balance sheet, then I will know what he is worth.”
It’s not that my friend was incapable of appreciating others’ humanity. He was generous and charitable and had developed into an advocate for the welfare of others. It was just that the way he judged whether or not a person had “made it” in life was based upon “the balance sheet.”
As for me, it was difficult back then to come up with an equally simple formula for really knowing another person and has remained so ever since.
In this week’s portion, Re’eh, we learn a lesson that always reminds me of those long-ago discussions with my businessman friend. The Torah enjoins us to give charity to the poor. “If there be among you a needy man…thou shalt not harden thy heart nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother, but thou shalt open thine hand unto him…” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
The Torah does not define “needy.” What exactly is the degree of need that entitles a person to charity? How do I determine what level of another’s “need” obligates me to contribute?
The Oral Torah, in the Mishna, Talmud, and Codes, provides details. It defines the degree of poverty that entitles a person to communal funds for meals, clothing, and basic necessities. And, yes, it does look at the “bottom line of the balance sheet.”
However, it also looks at data not on the typical balance sheet. Immediately after the verse quoted above, we find the following: “…and thou shalt surely lend him sufficient for his needs and that which is lacking to him” (Deuteronomy 15:8). What does the Torah mean by this?
Rashi tells us that “sufficient for his needs” means you have to meet his needs, but you do not have to make him wealthy. “That which is lacking to him” means that if he was accustomed, before he became impoverished, to ride upon a horse and have a servant run before him, then you must provide him with that horse and that servant.
There is here a teaching of exquisite sensitivity. It is not enough to ensure that the beneficiary’s material needs are satisfied; it is also important that he be able to retain at least a measure of his former prestige and dignity. His emotional as well as financial needs must be addressed.
And what does the Torah mean by the “him” in the phrase “lacking to him”? It means, Rashi tells us, that if one aspect of his impoverishment is loneliness, then we must search for a good wife for him.
The Torah is providing an essential lesson about the responsibilities of the community to its needy members. We must not merely examine their balance sheets to determine that they qualify financially and give them enough of a dole to provide them with food and shelter.
We must also look at the balance sheet that takes into account human dignity and the social and emotional condition of the needy person to help him salvage some of his self-esteem and provide him with proper companionship.
The tragedy of the poor transcends their financial predicament; it includes their intense feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Society must see to it that “all that is lacking to him” is addressed.
This holistic view of the needs of another person is not limited to the charity we give to the poor. Rather, this is the view we must have of all human beings. Who they are and what their value is cannot be assessed on the basis of a financial balance sheet.
When we relate to or judge other people, we cannot know them unless we know what is really lacking in their lives. We must look at the whole person, at his or her emotional, spiritual, and social needs.