By Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow
The reading for the second day of Shavuot is Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17.
The second day Torah reading for Shavuot is dedicated to the centrality of Jerusalem (although the name Jerusalem is never mentioned), the special sabbatical rules observed in the promised land, the holiday cycle and the responsibility of making a pilgrimage three times a year.
Perhaps the most pervasive and powerful message in our reading is the emphasis on gemilut chasadim — doing deeds of loving kindness. In our tradition, it’s God who mandates correct action. No matter our inclination, we are bidden to be compassionate.
Tithing is an all-encompassing mitzvah, a sort self-taxation of one’s agricultural produce. There was also a special tithe that was to be enjoyed by each pilgrim in Jerusalem for the festival. One was to celebrate during the festival, and no one was to be overlooked.
Next, the Torah specifies “the stranger, the orphan and the widow . . . may come and eat and be satisfied; so that God your Lord may bless you in all that you do.” I might think that I have covered all the possible responsibilities that the Torah places on me by tithing and celebrating the festival and providing for the others, but I am far from finished with my responsibilities.
By following the mitzvot, God assures us of blessing and plenty in our land, never to be in need of any good thing. But reality being what it is, there are always those in need.
When I was studying in a yeshivah in Israel, a teacher from a religious kibbutz described an early controversy over whether it was permitted by Torah to form a religious kibbutz.
The very question was perplexing, Why not? The concept of a kibbutz — a commune — is to provide for all, so that no one would be poor. Yet the Torah speaks of the needy as ever present in the land. Further, how could a person be religious and not have anyone to give tzedakah — charity — to?
Religious leaders resolved these issues by reasoning that it’s not incumbent upon us to ensure that there will always be poor people. Rather, poverty is a sad fact of life, and we are charged by God to rectify the situation to the best of our abilities. Perhaps within the kibbutz there will be no one in need, but certainly somewhere else there is someone requiring our assistance.
One might think that giving a little is good enough. This idea is foreign to Torah thinking. Two verses in our festival reading have been interpreted to demonstrate the necessity of giving in accordance with the actual need of a specific individual.
“If one of your brethren is in need . . . you must not harden your heart nor close your hand against your needy brother. Instead, you shall open your hand to him and freely lend him enough to meet his needs.” The hand itself became a symbol of giving in accordance with actual need. As explained to me, closing one’s hand into a fist makes all fingers appear equal in size, yet, upon opening the hand we discover the true length of each finger. Some are short, others long. So it is that no two individuals have identical needs.
Our challenge, especially at a time of celebration, is to tailor our giving in accordance with the real needs of others.
Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain. His last duty station was at what is now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda.