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D'varim/Deuteronomy 15:8 Instead, you shall certainly open your hand to him, and you shall certainly lend [to] him according to his need
This text has nothing to do with giving and everything to do with community. It is not about charitable giving, responding to those soliciting funds for any of the thousand and one charitable causes that tug so intentionally on our heart strings as fund-raisers compete with each other to beat donor fatigue and reach their target by extracting a donation - however large or small - from reluctant and weary donors struggling to balance their own needs against the biblical injunction to support others. This text is about living and sharing in community, amongst people you know - whether you love them or hate them - and the ways in which we make that community work by supporting each other. It is about building the kingdom of G-d!
Twice in our text the writer uses the technique of two adjacent forms of the same verb: the first an infinitive form, the second a normal active form. Literally translated either as an infinitive - "to act, you shall act" - or a participle: "acting, you shall act", it is usually rendered as here by the formula "you shall certainly act", or by applying a qualifying adverb to make the action better. Consider some of these alternatives:
Be open-handed and freely lend him (NIV)
You shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need (NASB)
You shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need (NKJV)
In the first instance, the verb root is , to open, cleave, loosen or untie (Davidson). is the Qal infinitive, "to open"; is the Qal prefix 3ms form, "you shall open". The phrase "opening the hand" is a well-known idiom for the giving of a gift. The second verb, , to give or borrow against a pledge (Davidson), is used in its Hif'il stem, to lend against a pledge. is the Hif'il infinitive, "to lend"; is the Hif'il 3ms prefix form with a 3ms object pronoun suffix, "you shall lend [to] him". The commentators make much of the grammar to bring out a very traditional Jewish point of view.
Pointing to the repeated verb,Rashi says that the Torah is here teaching that you must be prepared to open your hand "many times". The Baal HaTurim adds that "there is no maximum to this assistance, rather you should give and give again." Don Isaac Abravanel includes both parties and explains that "the purpose of the repetition - both in language and in what is commanded - is to make the person charitable; such qualities are developed by doing them over and over again." At the same time, the sages of the Talmud comment that "while you are commanded to maintain him, you are not commanded to make him rich" (b. Ketubot 67b). The unlimited help therefore applies to the number of times that a poor man should be helped, rather than simply becoming rich at the expense of the community. Everyone in the community is considered liable to help someone who is poor; Rabbi Hirsch explains that "this is not only confined to to rich people who can give big amounts but also to less rich people from whom the fulfilment of this duty is equally expected, even if they can only give the smallest amount. In the sphere of this duty the smallest weighs equally with the greatest, if the means do not reach to more."
The commentators are also concerned about the feelings of the poor man who is being helped in this way. The Ba'al HaTurim, who remembers that the noun , a door, gate or opening, comes from the same root as the first verb, insists that "if the poor man is embarrassed [to accept gifts or loans], bring them to his door." Rashi comments on the fact that two different mechanisms - give, lend - are juxtaposed in the text and explains that "If he did not wish to accept a gift, give it to him as a loan."Ibn Ezra balances the two verbs to make sure that help can be made available for everyone: "The verb 'lend' means to take a pledge from someone ensuring that he will repay the money you give him. By contrast, 'opening your hand' means giving to one who has nothing to pledge." According to Rabbi Hirsch, "helping with a loan is considered a still higher form of benevolence than the giving of charity, because the borrower is helped to carry on his means of gaining his livelihood by it and at receiving it feels much less humiliated."
The Tur points out that the first verb, , has defectiva spelling, without a vav whose numerical value is six. This indicates, he says, that "there is a mitzvah to give bread to the poor on Friday, the sixth day of the week." This is based on the Talmud, where the sages say that "a housewife should rise early to bake bread (y. Megilla 4 adds 'on Fridays') - so that there should be bread for the poor" (b. Bava Kamma 82a), because women will be baking bread for Shabbat for their families on Fridays. The same verb in the text has a Masoretic note to say that this word appears three time in the Tanakh: twice in this passage (here and v. 11) and "opened wide are the gates of your land" (Nahum 3:13) where it has plene spelling. This indicates, the Tur explains, "that if you open your hand [to the poor], the gates of heaven will be opened for you, in order to receive your prayers. But if [you do] not, they will not be opened for you, as it is stated, "Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered" (Proverbs 21:13, ESV).
The issue of providing for the members of the community was important for the Jerusalem church. Early in the book of Acts we read about their unity - "Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common" (Acts 4:32, ESV) - and the way that needs among the community were met: "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need" (vv. 34-35, ESV). Then follows the short narrative of Barnabas selling a field and bringing the proceeds to the apostles and the rather longer story of Ananias and Sephira, concluding that "great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things" (5:11, ESV). This early phase, however, could only be a temporary arrangement, not a permanent or lasting ordinance for all believers, otherwise the early church would have run out of fields to sell and would have sold all the means of production so that no money was being earned or brought into the church. No fields equals no finance; no finance equals no food; and as Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says, "Where there is no food, there is no Torah" (m. Pirkei Avot 3:17), since everyone becomes focused on survival instead of study and fellowship.
Today, true communal living is very unusual, restricted to kibbutzim in Israel and to religious houses or communities. Nevertheless, the imperative remains upon the followers of Yeshua as Rav Sha'ul explained: "If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8, NASB). It is clear that the world also expects that we should be charitable and generous; so much so that certain sections of society think that we should be an easy touch and always meeting their needs or, perhaps more accurately, feeding their habits! How do we give or help without being taken advantage of? How should we respond to the homeless, rough sleepers, addicts, beggars and so on? Should we simply give whenever asked, knowing that we have no control of the gift once it leaves our hand, and risk helping not recovery but a furtherance of a self-destructive lifestyle. Are we encouraging or even promoting bad or corrosive life choices by unthinkingly or even sacrificially funding such people? We have to exercise appropriate stewardship of kingdom resources, which includes not only money but time, resources, stress and ourselves. We do not "not give", but we must make responsible and informed investments.
So here's the first decision point, the tension between these two verses, both written early in Rav Sha'ul's ministry: "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10, ESV) and "For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10, ESV). Where people have chosen not to work or engage with society, they are not a suitable target for direct investment; they should certainly be helped, but this should always be done through an agency that understands how they think and can see through the manipulation and deception that often accompanies these lifestyles. Where possible, preference should be given to agencies who have a clear faith position, agenda and track record. This ensures that charitable funds are channeled towards food, clothing, housing and medical needs and are not siphoned off into alcohol, drugs or other dependencies and feeding a downward spiral. Such agencies are skilled at promoting real engagement with learning, access to state benefits and healthcare, and holding their clients accountable for making better choices and getting out of their poverty.
Secondly, within the faith communities of which we are a part, how can we all invest in the community and the lives of fellow believers? Many people are significantly challenged or restricted in their own finances, so feel that they cannot give or invest, but this is not so. An investment may be more than money; it can be time, space or other resources. Could you offer an evening's baby-sitting to allow a parent more time for earning money, building a new business or repairing their marriage? Would you be able to store someone's stuff in your house or flat to allow another family room in their house for a child's bedroom, or while they move house? Do you have experience in business, ministry or an artisan skill, that advice or mentoring could help someone change their career, grow their business or simply be more efficient? Investments can be made in all these ways. People may not always be open to receiving help, even if they know they need it, not wanting to become indebted to others, so perhaps it can be considered as a loan from the community and not necessarily paid back to anyone in particular, but to the community over time. Again accountability can often be an essential part of this process, to make sure that people are making good choices and not being taken advantage of, but "not helping" is not a kingdom option.
Further Study: Proverbs 11:24-25; Acts 20:32-35; Romans 12:6-8
Application: Are you actively engaged with 'helping' your community, investing in those who need support, resources or encouragement at the moment? What could you do to help your community grow in the ways of the kingdom?
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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