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Sunday, 21 August 2016

Stealing from the Poor

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 81

The tzedaka (charity) collectors in Bartosa had a problem.  Whenever they saw Rabbi Elazar they would be forced to run the other way.  Why?  Every last penny that he had on him, he would insist on giving away to the poor!  On one occasion, Rabbi Elazar was off to purchase a bridal dowry for his daughter.  But lo and behold, on the way, he bumped into the collectors.  Before they could stop him, he had thrust the entire amount into their hands and escaped into the distance. 

But now, what of the dowry?  All he could afford to buy was a single stalk of wheat, which he duly placed into his silo, in advance of the upcoming wedding.   When the big day arrived, his daughter went to claim her wheat stalk.  To her great surprise, she was unable to open the door.  A miracle had occurred – the Almighty multiplied that one stalk into hundreds of thousands of pieces of wheat.  So great was the overabundance that the door would not open! 
“See how the Almighty treats His beloved!” she declared incredulously.

King Solomon said: One may take a short-cut through another’s property.  As it was taught: If a person completed the harvesting of his field, and yet blocks entry to others into his field, what do they say about him?  What benefit does he get from denying us access through his property?  In what way is anyone causing him harm?  Concerning him, the verse states, “When you could be good, do not be called bad.”
The Gemara asks: Does Scripture really state, “When you could be good, do not be called bad?”
The Gemara answers: Indeed, it states something similar.  The Proverbs declare, “Do not withhold good from its owners, when you have the power to do it.” 

The Proverbs teach that one may not withhold good “from its owners.”  What does that mean?  In our case, the people who want to take a short-cut through the field don’t own it, it belongs to the farmer!  If he chooses to allow them to cross, isn’t he doing them a favour out of the goodness of his heart?

In Pirkei Avos we learn, “Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa says: Give Him of His, for you and yours are His.”  On a simple level, Rabbi Elazar is teaching that when you give tzedaka, you shouldn’t have the attitude that you are giving away your personal hard-earned cash.  No, it all belongs to G-d.  He gave you the money, He continues to be the true Owner of that money, and He is instructing you to give it away to the poor.  The right attitude to tzedaka is to constantly acknowledge that it’s not your money.

But the Lev Avos deepens our obligation to the poor based on the verse in Proverbs.  He explains: When the Almighty provides sustenance to the world, He creates exactly enough to go around.  The only catch is that He doesn’t initially apportion it to whom it truly belongs.  Some people get more than their fair share, others get less.  It is the responsibility of those who received more to redistribute the funds to their rightful owners.  And so the meaning of the Mishnah is: Give him – the poor person – that which is his!

In other words, when you give tzedaka, you’re not giving away your personal money to the poor.  You’re not even giving away G-d’s money to His children.  You’re redistributing the funds to their rightful owners!  If you were to hang onto it, it would be almost as if you were stealing from the poor.  The Almighty prepared exactly enough to go around; why are you hoarding wealth that is someone else’s due?!  And now we understand the verse, “Do not withhold good from its owners!”

That is the meaning of our Gemara.  Hashem placed exactly the right amount of His chen (favour) into this world to bring joy and blessing to all His children.  This farmer has completed his harvest and stands nothing to lose by allowing others to traverse his property.  That potential benefit is not his; it’s theirs.  And so by denying access, he’s not withholding something that belongs to him; he’s stealing Heavenly bounty from its rightful owners!

When you do good to others, you’re not doing them a favour; you’re giving them what is due to them!  Whether it’s tzedaka that you are giving or other forms of assistance – from a kind word to a helping hand, or even just a smile – the Almighty has already destined them to be the recipients of His bounty.  In fact, if you were to withhold that smile, you would be stealing their joy! 

In every situation in this world, Hashem created givers and receivers.  If you are fortunate enough that He created you a giver, don’t abuse your gift!  You have a duty to redirect Heaven’s bounty to its rightful owners.  The more successful you are at that redistribution, the more the Almighty will entrust you with His bounty.  That’s the meaning of our Sages’ dictum on the verse, “You shall surely tithe” – when you tithe surely, you will prosper! 


Don’t ever take the Almighty’s blessing for granted.  Some of it you were meant to keep.  The excess, however, was only given to you because He knows that you are better at handling money than a lot of other people.  May you handle Heaven’s bounty wisely!