Free Will: It's Up to Us!

See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse."[1] We are granted free will to choose between the good and the bad, between a blessing and a curse. It is all in our hands. We can chart our own course; we can change our paths.

There are some puzzling grammatical discrepancies in this passage. The word "re'eh - see" is written in the singular, while "lifneichem - before you" is written in the plural, and the word "nosein - give" is in the present rather than in the past tense, even though Moses was referring to commandments that had already been given. All this is to remind us that God made the blessings of the Torah available to the entire nation. We all stood at Sinai; we all heard His voice, but it is up to us as individuals to act upon it. God can send us wake-up calls; He can even chastise us, but He cannot coerce us, for if He were to interfere with our free will, we would become robots and the entire concept of spiritual growth, of reward and punishment would be negated. Whether we choose to follow God's instructions or ignore them depends entirely upon us and is at the root of our undoing as well as our happiness.

The good news, however, is that the word "give" is in the present tense, meaning that God is willing to give us a new chance every day ... more, every minute of every day. We may have failed a thousand and one times, but in His infinite mercy, He does not lose patience with us and makes teshuvah possible at all times, under all conditions. As King Solomon said, "Though the righteous one may fall seven times, he will arise ...."[2]

How does a man become righteous? By standing up and starting all over again, even seven times, symbolic of the seven days of the week. But how do we make that fresh start? Every mitzvah that we undertake, every prayer that we pronounce, every page that we study in the Torah, every act of chesed, is a step in the right direction, a step that will lead us to a new life of blessing.

THE LAWS OF TZEDAKAH

In Jewish life, there is nothing ambiguous about giving tzedakah. The laws of tzedakah are not a matter of personal preference, of likes and dislikes. We have definite obligations, and they are spelled out in this parashah. Significantly, in the holy tongue, aseir, the word for tithing,[3] used in the commandment to separate a portion for the needy, also spells asher, wealthy, assuring us that when we give tzedakah, we are never diminished. On the contrary, we become enriched.

The Torah teaches us that we should not harden our hearts or close our hands to the indigent; that it is not only giving charity that is significant, but also the manner in which we offer it.

This is most unusual, because in most cases, the Torah focuses on the fulfillment of the mitzvah rather than on the manner in which it is being performed. But when it comes to tzedakah, we must be sensitive to the feelings of the needy, who are humiliated by the fact that they have to beg. Therefore, the words "Paso'ach tiftach es yad'cha - Open your hand," literally, "open, you shall open your hand,"[4] repeats the word open, teaching that we are required to give again and again, and always with a gracious, full heart, as seen in the previous verse, "... you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother."

The parashah teaches us that, in addition to monetary gifts, we must offer words of encouragement to the poor. Asking for help is a humbling experience, so we should do our utmost to lift the spirits of those in needs. Our Sages teach that for the monetary gifts that we offer, we receive six blessings, but for words of encouragement and comfort, God gives us 11, impressing upon us that to revive broken spirits and to imbue them with hope and confidence is of the highest priority. Charity is such an integral part of our people that, throughout our long history, even the most impoverished community established charity funds, free-loan societies, and hachnasas kallah (helping poor brides) and bikur cholim (visiting the sick) groups.

TZEDAKAH: NOT AN OPTION BUT AN OBLIGATION

The Hebrew word tzedakah means something far deeper than charity. Tzedakah is derived from the work tzedek, which means "justice" or "righteousness," telling us that to give is an obligation to do justice. The word tzedakah reminds us that what we have is not really ours but has been given to us in trust by God for distribution.

"For Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold ...."[5] It all belongs to God, and when we give, we are only returning that which He gave to us. Charity, on the other hand, is a totally different concept. It is derived from the Latin word caritas, meaning "love," suggesting that we have an option: to give to those we love and to withhold help from those we dislike.

In the world of tzedakah, such options do not exist. Whether we like someone or not, we have a responsibility to give, for that is the correct thing to do, and we should not feel that we deserve any special credit, even as we deserve no reward for paying our taxes.

WHY DOES GOD ALLOW THE POOR TO BE POOR?

A Roman nobleman once challenged Rabbi Akiva, "If your God is so concerned for the poor, why did He create them?"

"For the same reason that He didn't create bread trees," came the answer. "God wants us to join Him in partnership to continue the work that He began. Through the act of giving, we become kinder and better people and can make tikun olam; we can participate in the process of perfecting the world.

"Can you imagine what the world would look like if we were all self-sufficient and never needed one another? Can you imagine the selfishness, the greed, and the baseness if no one ever felt compassion or gratitude? Therefore, the Torah teaches that 'destitute people will not cease to exist within the Land; therefore I command you, saying, "You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your Land."[6]

Indeed, it is through the act of giving that humanity is elevated and the spark of God lying dormant in the soul becomes visible. The Torah teaches that that which we give away is the only thing we really have.

NOTES

1. Deuteronomy 11:26.
2. Proverbs 24:16.
3. Ibid. 14:22.
4. Ibid. 15:8.
5. Haggai 2:8.
6. Deuteronomy 15:11.

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