The Torah prohibits various extreme forms of mourning the death of loved ones. As the laws of nature require every living thing to eventually die, why is human nature to mourn the death of a loved one, sad as it may be, with such intensity when we mentally recognize that it is inevitable?
The Ramban, in his work Toras HaAdam on the laws and customs of death and mourning, offers a fascinating explanation for this phenomenon. When Hashem originally created the first man, Adam, He intended him to be immortal and created him with a nature reflecting this reality. When Adam sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit, he brought death to mankind and to the entire world.
Nevertheless, this new development, although it would completely change the nature of our life on earth until the Messianic era, had no effect on man’s internal makeup, which was designed to reflect the reality that man was intended to live forever. Therefore, although our minds recognize that people ultimately must die and we see and hear about death on a daily basis, our internal makeup remains as it was originally designed, one which expects our loved ones to live forever as they were originally intended to do, and which is therefore plunged into intense mourning when confronted with the reality that this is no longer the case.
את זה תאכלו מכל אשר במים כל אשר לו סנפיר וקשקשת תאכלו (14:9)
For a fish to be kosher, the Torah requires that it have fins and scales. The Mishnah teaches (Niddah 6:9) that every fish with scales has fins, but some possess fins without scales. In light of this, the Gemora (Chullin 66b) questions why the Torah gives two requirements to determine a fish’s kashrus. Wouldn’t it have sufficed to make it solely dependent on scales, which are always accompanied by fins? The Gemora cryptically answers that the Torah did so להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה – to make the Torah great and mighty.
The Zayis Re’anan (the commentary of the Magen Avrohom on the Yalkut Shimoni) brilliantly elucidates the Gemora’s answer. In his notes on the Rosh’s commentary in Chullin, the Ma’adanei Yom Tov (3:67 s.k. 5) relates a fascinating episode. Rav Aharon HaRofeh brought before him a poisonous marine animal, known in Latin as stinkus marinus, which clearly possessed scales. In contradiction to the Mishnah’s claim, it had four small legs in lieu of fins.
The Zayis Re’anan suggests that Chazal were aware of this creature’s existence. They also recognized that independent of the laws of kashrus, people would instinctively avoid eating this poisonous animal. They therefore weren’t concerned that their categorical statement, which seems to permit its consumption, would lead to any problems.
The Gemora in Makkos (23b) teaches that because Hashem wanted to give us merits, He increased the number of mitzvos for us to perform, as the verse saysד' חפץ למען צדקו יגדיל תורה ויאדיר , the same expression used by the Gemora with which we began. Rashi explains that there are many mitzvos, such as the prohibition against eating bugs, which a person would observe independent of the commandment involved. Because Hashem wanted us to accrue additional merits, He forbade them so we would receive reward for actions which we would anyway do, but which now have the status of mitzvos.
With this introduction, we can understand the Gemora with which we began. The Gemora questioned why the Torah mentions fins as a requirement for kosher fish when it would have sufficed to mention only scales. However, had it done so, the stinkus marinus would technically be kosher, as it possesses scales. The additional requirement of fins comes to render this creature non-kosher.
This is difficult to understand, as this creature is poisonous and people would anyway avoid it. Why was it necessary to add the requirement of fins to exclude it? Based on Rashi’s explanation that Hashem made the Torah great with extra mitzvos to give us reward for what we would have done regardless, we may conclude that this is the intention of the Gemora in Chullin in quoting the same verse. Hashem made the Torah great by adding the requirement of fins to render the stinkus marinus non-kosher and give us reward for following our instincts to avoid it!
כי יהיה בך אביון מאחד אחיך ... לא תאמץ את לבבך ולא תקפץ את ידך מאחיך האביון
כי פתח תפתח את ידך לו (15:7-8)
The Torah strongly exhorts us to have mercy and compassion upon our poor brethren. The Gemora (Bava Basra 10a) records that a wicked Roman nobleman named Turnus Rufus asked Rebbi Akiva, “If your G-d loves poor people so much, why doesn’t He provide for them?” Rebbi Akiva answered that Hashem allows them to remain poor in order to give us the merit of giving them charity, which will protect us from punishment.
The Alter of Kelm, questions Rebbi Akiva’s explanation. Although the mitzvah of giving tzedakah is certainly a great one, aren’t there enough other commandments that we can do to save us from punishment? What is so unique and special about giving charity, and why must the poor suffer in order to enable us to specifically perform this mitzvah?
The Alter explains that the mitzvah of tzedakah indeed serves an irreplaceable function. Although one fulfills the technical letter of the law by distributing charity to those in need, in order to perform this mitzvah at its highest level a person must do more than this. It isn’t sufficient to give charity simply because Hashem commanded us to do so and we want to perform His will.
A person dispersing tzedakah should feel the pain and plight of the poor beggar as if it were his very own. Just as a person who feels his own hunger naturally responds by feeding himself, so too should we strive to identify with the pauper’s hunger and anguish to the point that we would be moved to assist him even if we weren’t obligated to do so. Although this is a noble goal to strive toward, on a practical level, how can a person blessed with ample means and resources work on attaining it?
Rav Eliyahu Chaim Meisels, the Rav of Lodz, Poland, was renowned for his concern for the poor and downtrodden. On one ferociously fierce winter day, he knocked on the door of a wealthy, but stingy, man in his town to solicit a donation.
After exchanging greetings, the man gestured that the Rabbi should enter, but Rav Meisels remained outside and began his appeal. The rich man was puzzled by the Rabbi’s behavior, but he attempted to listen out of respect. However, after a few minutes he grew so cold that he was unable to continue. He interrupted the Rav and begged him to come inside.
The sagacious Rabbi explained, “I am here to collect money for a family which can’t even afford to build a fire on a day like today. If we enter your warm home, you won’t be able to relate to their suffering. Only by discussing their plight here at your door are you able to understand the magnitude of their pain.” Appreciating both the Rabbi’s wisdom as well as the extent of the family’s anguish, the miser gave Rav Meisels a generous donation.
It is difficult for most of us to relate to the daily suffering that many of our brethren unfortunately know. Now that we understand that empathizing with their plights is an integral part of giving tzedakah, and is the irreplaceable component which protects us from punishment like no other mitzvah, we should try our utmost, whether by volunteering at a soup kitchen or by walking through the park on a fierce winter night, to work on personally experiencing and feeling their pain. Our desire to generously assist them will naturally follow, and in so doing, we will be helping not only the poor but also ourselves.
כי יהיה בך אביון מאחד אחיך ... לא תאמץ את לבבך ולא תקפץ את ידך מאחיך האביון
כי פתח תפתח את ידך לו (15:7-8)
The Torah requires a person to be compassionate toward the poor, commanding a person not to close his hand to the destitute, but rather to open it. If it is forbidden to close one’s hand to the poor, doesn’t it go without saying that one is required to open it? What is the Torah trying to teach us by emphasizing this point?
The Vilna Gaon explains that while a person is obligated to give charity, he is not supposed to disperse it equally to each poor person. There are laws governing to whom one must give precedence when distributing charity, such as family members or people in his community, and the needs of each beggar must be assessed when determining how much to give them.
Our verses allude to the requirement to take these considerations into account when giving tzedakah. When a person closes his hand and looks at his fingers, they all appear to be equal in length, although opening one’s hand reveals that this is clearly not the case.
The Torah already commanded a person to be merciful to our needy brethren and takes for granted that we will help meet their needs. Now it comes to emphasize that the manner in which we do so should not be one in which we indiscriminately give equal amounts to each beggar, as symbolized by a closed hand, but rather we should open our hands and realize that each poor person’s needs as well as our obligation to him aren’t the same, and we should disperse our charity accordingly.
Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) The Torah forbids one to (13:1) add on to the mitzvos which Hashem gave. Does a person transgress this prohibition if he mistakenly believes that the act he is doing is a mitzvah, but if he would know the truth, he wouldn’t do it? (Maharil Diskin 4:2)
2) The Torah prescribes a harsh punishment (13:7-11) for a person’s brother, child, wife, or “friend who is like your own soul” who attempts to entice him to worship idolatry. Rashi explains that the latter is a reference to one’s father. Why is this unique expression used specifically to describe the relationship between a father and his child? (Imrei Deiah)
3) The Torah prohibits (14:1) various forms of mourning the death of loved ones. Why is the mourning period for the more natural and frequent loss of a parent longer (12 months) than that for the unnatural and seemingly more traumatic loss of a child (30 days)? (Meged Yosef)
4) Parshas Re’eh delineates which species may be consumed (14:3-21). Why did Hashem make the majority of animals non-kosher and the majority of birds kosher? (Yad Av)
5) The Torah permits (14:6) the consumption of any land animal which chews its cud and has split hooves. Do these signs or their absence actually cause the permissibility or prohibition of consuming an animal, or are they simply signs indicating whether a certain species is kosher? In other words, if there were an animal from a normally kosher species which didn’t have split hooves, would it be kosher? (Rav Elchonon Wasserman in Kovetz Shmu’os Chullin 62b 27)
6) The Gemora in Bava Basra (10a) records that Rav Pappa once fell from a ladder, and Rav Chiya asked him if he had once neglected the mitzvah of giving charity to a poor person (15:7-11) and this was his punishment for doing so. How did Rav Chiya know that this punishment specifically corresponded to this mitzvah, and in what way was it considered measure-for-measure? (Peninim MiShulchan HaGra, Peninei Kedem)
7) The Torah requires (15:7-11) a person to be compassionate and merciful toward his poor brethren and to generously open his hand to dispense loans and charity to assist them. The Gemora in Bava Basra (10a) teaches that a person who closes his eyes to the poor and refuses to give them tzedakah is considered as one who worshipped idolatry. Although his behavior is far from commendable, why is it viewed in such harsh terms? (Chavos Yair, Peninei Kedem)
8) The Torah commands us (16:13-15) three times to rejoice on Sukkos, which we refer to in our prayers as זמן שמחתנו – the time of our rejoicing. Why is happiness specifically associated with Sukkos? (Matnas Chaim Moadim)
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