TORAH FOR THE NATIONS
The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people
WHO IS STRONG?
TOLDOT Genesis 25:19-28:9
Following the passing of Abraham, Isaac moves to the center of the stage in our present portion. While Abraham is the exemplar of the expansive quality of Kindness (Hebrew: Chessed ), Isaac is the exemplar of the opposite pole: Strength (Hebrew: Gevurah ). This includes such important traits as the ability to focus and apply one's personal powers constructively through self-control, restraint and discipline. As such, the quality of Strength is the necessary complement to the quality of Kindness, which must be carefully focused in order to attain its true goal.
Isaac manifested the quality of Strength when he submitted to Abraham's binding him for sacrifice on the altar of the service of God (Genesis chapter 22). Abraham's quality of Kindness and Isaac's quality of Strength then became synthesized in the personality of Isaac's son Jacob, who also makes his first appearance in our present portion. The biblical text later describes Jacob as "perfect" (Genesis 33:18) in virtue of his ability to attain balance in the application of these two qualities.
"Who is called strong? The person who controls his inclination" (Avot 4:1). According to Torah psychology, God has created us with two sides: a good inclination (rooted in the "Godly Soul" or "higher self") and an evil inclination (rooted in the "Animal Soul" or "lower self"). These two sides are given to test us. We constantly face all kinds of choices in life, and often we are pulled in different directions by conflicting inner forces. One side - the good inclination - leans toward the "straight and narrow path" of virtue, but the other side - the evil inclination - pulls in the opposite direction. The choices we make determine our destiny both in this world and in the life after life in the world to come.
The good inclination is characterized by selflessness in devotion to G-d, benefiting other people and cultivation of the higher self or soul. The evil inclination prompts us to serve ourselves and our mundane cravings and desires, whether for food and drink, sex and other physical pleasures or for wealth, power, prestige, honor and the like. The path to God is through binding ourselves on the altar of God's service and sacrificing the lower self through submission to His will as revealed in the Torah. This requires self control.
We cannot survive in this world without eating and drinking, cohabitation and a host of other material requirements. God does not demand that we remove ourselves completely from the material world, but rather that we satisfy our legitimate needs honestly without taking more than we need. In the modern economy everyone needs money to buy what they need, but often because of fear that they may lack money at some future time, many people throw themselves into the frantic race to acquire more and more wealth in the hope of providing themselves with "security" and enjoying a higher standard of living.
One of our greatest tests in the struggle between the good and bad inclinations is how we go about making our living, and what we do with our wealth and money. Do we keep it all to ourselves, or do we share some of it with others?
The economy of the Biblical world did involve money (as when Abraham purchased a burial cave for Sarah with "ready cash" - four hundred shekel-weights of silver (Genesis 23:16). However, the Biblical economy was primarily based upon agriculture, and Isaac's way of going about the cultivation of his field teaches us an important lesson about how to make our livelihood in an honest, God-fearing way.
"And Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he found one hundred measures . And God blessed him, and the man grew and went on growing until he was very great" (Genesis 26:12-13). The second verse quoted here is telling us that through God's blessing Isaac became very prosperous, while the first verse hints to us as to the particular merit displayed by Isaac that brought forth this blessing.
How did Isaac become so rich? The Torah commentators tell us that even before he sowed his field, Isaac estimated how much such a field should produce, but when he finally harvested the crop he found it to be one hundred times greater than his original estimate! But why did Isaac want to estimate the likely yield even before he sowed? The commentators say that he wanted to assess the amount of the tithe he would give to the poor from his eventual harvest (Rashi ad loc.).
We may thus infer that the reason why God blessed Isaac with his great wealth was because of his good intention. Even before he started sowing his field, he was already thinking about giving a portion of the eventual yield to the needy. In an agricultural society you have to farm in order to eat. But Isaac thought not only about providing his own needs but also about satisfying the needs of others through giving tithes.
The first appearance in the Torah of the concept of giving tithes is when Abraham gave a tenth of the booty he took in his war against the Four Kings to Malki-Tzedek (Genesis 14:20). Malki-Tzedek was a priest, and it is a Torah principle that those who minister to G-d should have their material needs satisfied through the tithes they receive from the rest of the people (cf. Genesis 47:22). This way they are able to devote themselves entirely to their vocation without having to divert their attention to physical labor. The Torah elaborates a complete system of tithes (Terumot and Maasrot) which the Israelite farmer must give to the Temple priests (Cohanim), to the Levites, who ministered as the Temple guards and singers, and to the poor (see Numbers chapter 18; Deuteronomy 14:28).
These tithes are to be separated from agricultural produce. However, not everyone is a farmer. For those whose livelihood comes to them not in the form of the crops they harvest but their through their paycheck or other earnings, the monetary equivalent of the agricultural tithe is charity (Hebrew: Tzedakah ). While even a small gift of money to a needy person is considered charity, the Torah guideline for tithing one's income is that where possible, one should give at least one tenth and preferably one fifth of one's net earnings to charity.
Giving a portion of one's income to charity is a Torah commandment: "If there be among you a needy man. you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand from your needy brother but you shall surely open your hand to him" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8); "And if your brother is poor and his means fail with you, then you shall support him; whether he is a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you" (Leviticus 25:35). The Torah commandment to give charity applies not only to the Israelites but to all the nations. Thus it is written that Abraham taught his offspring that "they shall guard the way of God to practice charity and justice" (Genesis 18:19; Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona on Sanhedrin 56b).
God is perfect goodness, and it is in the nature of goodness to do good for the benefit of others. Through the practice of charity we learn to set a limit to our selfish enjoyment of our own wealth by giving a portion of it to other people who are in need. This way we may inculcate something of God's perfect altruism in our own hearts.
Many people are forced to become slaves in all but name in order to earn their livelihood, and many are slaves to their money and possessions. The way to free ourselves from this enslavement to money is by thinking of others too. We are not commanded to give away everything we earn to charity, for then we ourselves would fall into dependency upon others for our livelihood. What we have to give is a "tithe" - a proportion - of our earnings. After having done so, we ourselves are entitled to enjoy the fruits of our labors.
We should carefully choose the recipients of our charity in order to avoid giving away our money to the unscrupulous. But sometimes it is hard to determine whether a potential recipient is truly worthy or not. In such cases it may be preferable to help them anyway in case they really are worthy rather than risk turning away those who are genuinely needy just because some beggars may be fakers. The purpose of charity is not only to satisfy people's physical needs for food and drink, clothing, housing and the like, but also to satisfy the spiritual needs of hungry souls through supporting the study and teaching of the Torah.
When we are confronted with a needy person stretching out his hand for help, the evil inclination often reacts with stonehearted indifference and even cruelty, saying: "Why should I give my precious, hard-earned money to this offensive individual?" We have to break this instinctive selfishness and force ourselves to open our hearts and our hands: "You shall surely open your hand." Those who force themselves to do this are truly strong.
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