Two key phrases in this passage are “do not harden your heart” and “open your hand.”
In Parashat Re’eh we read, “If there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that Y-H-V-H your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
Two key phrases in this passage are “do not harden your heart” and “open your hand.” “Do not harden your heart” refers to feelings. “Open your hand” refers to actions. Our actions — either what we do or what we don’t do — are a reflection of our feelings and attitudes.
In the vocabulary of biblical Hebrew, the heart was considered to be the source of a person’s intellectual, moral and spiritual life. It was the organ that determined one’s behavior. Hardening the heart would indicate that one is both unresponsive to reason and incapable of compassion.
The psychologist Erich Fromm wrote that the Torah’s description of Pharaoh’s behavior presents “one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior.” Every bad choice will harden a person’s heart and every good choice will soften the heart. The more the heart hardens, the less freedom a person has to change. Future behavior becomes determined by previous actions.
Pharaoh became the victim of his own bad decisions. God did not take away Pharaoh’s freedom. Pharaoh merely lived out the consequences of his own hard-heartedness. Conversely, every time we soften our hearts, it becomes easier and easier to open our hands.
The story “Qualifications for Paradise,” related by Nathan Ausubel in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, shows how in the scale of Jewish values tzedakah carries greater weight than Torah learning, the performance of rituals or mystical contemplation. “The Gates of Paradise stood open and the procession of the souls of men reached to the Heavenly Tribunal. First came a rabbi. ‘I am learned in the Law,’ he said. ‘Night and day have I pored over the Word of God. I therefore deserve a place in Paradise.’
“‘Just a moment!’ called out the Recording Angel. ‘First we must make an investigation. We’ve got to find out what was the motive for your study. Did you apply yourself to learning for its own sake? Was it for the sake of honor, or for mercenary reasons?’
“Next came a saintly man. ‘How I fasted in the life I left behind! I observed all the six hundred and thirteen religious duties scrupulously. I bathed several times a day, and I studied the mysteries of the Zohar ceaselessly.’
“‘Just a moment!’ cried the Recording Angel. ‘We first have to make our investigation about the purity of your intentions.’
“Then a tavern-keeper approached. He said simply, ‘My door was always open to the homeless and I fed whoever was in need and hungry.’
“‘Open the Gates of Paradise!’ cried the Recording Angel. ‘No investigation is needed.’”
Now let us unpack the lesson in this story.
The reason why the Recording Angel wanted to investigate the lives of the rabbi and the saintly man was that both were too wrapped up in themselves. Every time the rabbi kept his eyes focused on reading what was in the books, it was one more time he didn’t look up to see what was happening to the people in the world around him. His heart became more and more walled off.
Every time the saintly man got preoccupied with performing the minutiae of rituals, or going off in flights of mystical fancy, it was one more time he didn’t see what was happening to the people in the world around him. His heart too became more and more walled off. They were fixated on the first-person singular pronoun.
The tavern-keeper was taken at his word, for he made a humble, unadorned statement without any hint of bragging or any sense of entitlement. Hence his statement seemed credible.
Abraham Franzblau (1901-1982), psychiatrist and professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, taught that one sign of a mature religious outlook is “centrifugal” — moving away from self-centeredness and moving outward to concern for others. Only the tavern-keeper passed the test of religious maturity.
Sometimes we may feel that since poverty and hunger are such large problems, how can our modest contributions be of any help? The answer to this question comes from a midrash on the verse from Isaiah 59:17: “He put on victory [tzedakah in Tanakh] like a coat of mail.”
Rabbi Eleazar taught that just as in a coat of mail each and every scale joins the other to form one large piece of armor, so every small coin given to tzedakah combines with the rest to form a large sum.
Hence, Rabbi Hanina said, “The same lesson may be learned from ‘All of our acts of tzedakah [together] are as a resplendent garment’” (Isaiah 64:5). Just as in a garment each and every thread unites with the others to form a whole garment, so every small coin given to tzedakah unites with the rest to form a large sum.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain of the Glendale Uptown Home in Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.