פתח תפתח את ידך
כי לא יחדל אביון מקרב הארץ על כן אנכי מצוך לאמר
פתח תפתח את ידך לאחיך לעניך ולאבינך בארצך
Since there will always be poor people in the land, therefore I command you, saying, Open your hand to your brother, to your poor and to the needy in your land. (Devarim 15:11)
We have now reached the mid-point in the Seven Steps to Mentschhood. The three steps we have just completed require us to think carefully before we act, and often to avoid acting altogether. Step #4 reminds us to remember that being a mentsch means not just thinking about the mitzvah as much as it means performing it.
Step # 4 teaches us that a mentsch knows the importance of giving tzedakah, charity.
When asked why the Torah tells us that there will always be poor people, this was the answer of a fourth grader:
“Hashem made the world unfinished, and it is our job to finish it. When we give tzedakah to the poor and they are no longer needy, then the world will be perfect.”
Many students have also suggested that often times there are rich people who become poor, and this is a continuing cycle.
What We Learn From Our Rabbis
A question is asked: Why the double phrase פתח תפתח (You shall surely open your hand)? Rashi answers that it is our obligation to give tzedakah to poor people not just once, but as many times as needed. We must also give charity according to the needs of the individual.
Another question is asked: What is the reason for the multiple languages for the recipients of our charity—“your brother, your poor and your needy”?
Several commentators including the Chizkuni explain. The word אחיך, your brother, refers to those people closest to you, who have first priority. Then עניך—your poor—are the other members of one’s extended family. Finally, אביונך, those of your own city. This hierarchy of giving makes it easier for anyone to apportion his charitable donations in an equitable fashion.
The Admor Sar Shalom of Belz suggested a novel way to understand this concept in Iturei Torah. He said that if one maintains a closed fist, all the fingers look to be the same height. However, when we open our hands, the fingers are of different lengths. Since we find the words לא תקפץ את ידך (You shall not close your hand) in another pasuk, we learn that we not only open our hands to the poor, but we also take into account their individual needs as well.
A striking point is made by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu Vol. 1: “It is not that you give to those whom you love, but, to the contrary, you love those to whom you give.” When you give tzedakah or provide chesed for someone, “you are actually investing something of yourself in him…and you develop a positive feeling toward any recipient of your chesed.” As a result, Rabbi Dessler teaches us that by engaging in acts of chesed we actually experience a greater sense of ahavat Yisrael, love of our fellow Jews.
How much or how to give?
Most of the halachic guidelines focus more on the manner in which we give tzedakah rather than how much we give. The Torah states in Devarim (15:7): לא תאמץ לבבך (You shall not harden your heart).
When giving tzedakah we must give with our whole hearts. Even if we are suspicious of the person asking for charity, we must give freely, trusting in Hashem to serve as the true Judge.
In her article, “The Inner Essence of the Mitzvat Tzedakah,” Linda Pardes Friedburg asks, “What is really worth more to a poor personL our coins or dollar bills, or a renewed sense of hope and self-worth?” She quotes Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
“With happiness you can give a person life… There is no one to whom he can unburden his heart, so he remains deeply pained and worried. If you come to such a person with a happy face, you can cheer him and literally give him life. This is a very great thing.”
When someone comes to your door requesting tzedakah: Ms. Friedberg offers the following suggestions. (Note: Children should never invite strangers into their home unless their parents are present.)
Greet them warmly and invite them in out of the cold or heat.
Offer some refreshments.
Look at the person in the eye and listen sympathetically.
Whatever amount you give, do it with a smile and a blessing. Say that you hope Hashem will grant them all they are lacking.
Accompany them back to the door with a smile and wish the person well.
A personal note: Often times when I attend services at my shul, there are people waiting to collect tzedakah. Although I am saddened that they need to collect money for their livelihood, I am happy that I can put the money directly into their hands in fulfillment of Step #4, “Open up your hand to your brother…” At the same time, I eagerly anticipate the bracha I will receive for myself and my family that is almost sure to follow, and I gratefully thank them.
Stanley Fischman is currently the supervisor of general studies instruction at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, NJ. He was a yeshiva elementary principal for 35 years and also served as director of general studies at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. Recently he celebrated his 50th anniversary of educating Jewish children. He is the author of “Seven Steps to Mentschhood: How to Help Your Child Become a Mentsch.”