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Judaism: Jews Helping Jews

Be "with" the person needing help.
Published: Friday, May 09, 2014 5:17 AM


This week we read the Torah portion Behar. In Parshas Behar, the Torah tells us of the mitzvah to help a fellow Jew who has come upon hard times. “And if your brother becomes poor, and his hand (means) falters with you (in your proximity), you shall strengthen him…” (Leviticus 25:35).

This is the basic commandment to help a Jew.

The Torah uses seemingly extra words when it describes the situation of this Jew who is in need of help. It is described as he is poor “with you”. What does the expression  “with you” add to the verse? The Jew who is giving the help has not fallen upon hard times. Why would the Torah describe the person who is in need as being “with you”?

The Ben Ish Chai offers an explanation based upon a story. There was once a king who had an only son. The king wanted his son to learn any type of wisdom possible, so that he would one day be fit to succeed his father, and to take over as king. He hired a very wise man to teach his son. The man trained the prince for a few years, and when they were finished, he sent him back to the king to be tested on what he had learned. The king tested his son and was amazed with the amount of wisdom that he had been taught. He ordered that 100,000 gold coins be given to the wise man who had taught his son, and that he be treated with great honor and respect.

A little while later, the wise man sent a message to the king, asking that he send the prince back so that he could teach him one more thing that had been left out. When the prince arrived, the wise man locked the door, and began giving the prince lashes. After whipping him 50 times, he sent the prince back home, bleeding and bruised. When the king saw what had been done to his son, he immediately dispatched his soldiers to bring the wise man to him, and to hang him on the gallows. Before the wise man was to be hanged, the king asked him the obvious question: “Why did you do such a foolish thing? You were receiving the greatest honor and glory that anyone could get, why did you beat the prince”?

The wise man responded, “Your majesty, I am an honest person. When you asked me to teach your son all that he would know to be able to be a good king one day, I faced a dilemma. One day your son will be the king. As such, he will have to decide how to administer punishments to people who have committed crimes. How will he know how many lashes to give each person? If he has no clue what it feels like to get lashes, how could he decide how many lashes to give for each crime? Maybe he will give so many lashes, that he will kill someone; maybe he will let a criminal who has committed a serious crime escape with a relatively light punishment. I felt that the only way to solve this problem was to teach your son firsthand what it feels like to be punished. Now I can be assured that when he assumes the throne one day, he will punish his subjects in a fair way.”

The king was so impressed with the answer of the wise man, that he freed him and sent him back home with his reward.

This, the Ben Ish Chai explains, is the meaning of the word imach – with you. The Torah wants us not just to give money to a poor person. The Torah wants us to first feel the pain that the poor person has, and understand how he or she feels. Only after that, when we feel the pain of the poor person, can we really try to help him or her.

We so often have to deal with people who are in need. Sometimes it is financial need. Even more often, it is emotional need. Whether a person needs a boost to their morale, to their prestige, to their happiness, or any of the other many areas of life that a person may need help with – the first thing we must do is to try to understand and feel what they are going through.

If we can stop before simply giving help, and just try to first feel what our friend is going through, then the help we can hopefully provide will be much stronger and more effective. This lesson, from this simple word "imach" – with you, can hopefully change the way we relate to all those whom we try to help.