There is a story told in our tradition of a young man whose father suddenly passed away leaving him, at the age of twenty, as the family’s sole breadwinner.
His father was a mohel-one who performs ritual circumcision-and he had taught that skill to his son. But as with any sensitive profession, it was initially difficult for the young man to establish his own reputation.
One day, an old family friend summoned the young mohel to his office, and after some brief pleasantries, handed the young man an envelope containing a large sum of money.
“Thank you,” said the young man, “but I can’t accept charity.”
“This is not charity,” replied the elder. “This is a loan. When things improve, you can repay it.”
Ultimately, the young man accepted the loan. Time went by, and things improved and when the young mohel accumulated the sum of the loan, he returned to the family friend’s office, with full intentions to fully repay the outstanding amount.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t take this,” declared the elder.
“But you said this was a loan!” insisted the mohel. ”I told you that I didn’t want to accept charity!”
“It was a loan,” agreed the older man, “but I cannot accept repayment.”
“Let me explain,” the elder continued. ”There was a time when I was young, and things were difficult. A friend offered me a loan and I accepted. But when I went to repay it, he refused to accept the money.
“He told me that some time in the future I should repay the loan to someone else who needs it. Now I’ve done the same for you. Please in the future give it to someone else in similar circumstances.”
And so it was.
The story of the young mohel and the family friend-told by the author, lecturer and mohel Rabbi Paysach Krohn-is an important one. On one hand, it speaks of the elder’s strong sense of righteousness, who-without being asked-came to the assistance of someone in need.
But the story also presents a real-life example of an important lesson contained in this week’s Torah portion. It teaches us to anticipate need, and maintain the dignity of a fellow human being who has suffered a financial setback.
According to the Torah, “When your kinsman becomes poor - if his hand gives way - and his means fails – then thou shalt uphold him....” (Leviticus 25:35).
Our great Biblical commentator Rashi (1040-1105) compares the fate of a person who has suffered a severe financial setback to a donkey carrying a load.
As long as the load is still on top of the donkey, says Rashi, a single person can steady it and keep it in position. But once it falls to the ground, even five people may have trouble raising it back to its place.
The issue of financial support is a complex one. Sometimes we fear that if we open our hand, that person will return again and again.
Indeed, each of us has lent money to someone who has not paid it back. Families and friendships are torn apart by this dynamic. The experience has left many both sour and cautious.
Yet our tradition is clear about the need to act, and before the “donkey falls,” not after. It is better, when someone loses their job or their livelihood, to help keep them in their home, maintain their forms of transportation, and keep them properly clothed.
Because it is from that strength-without public embarrassment-that a person can most easily rise from the brink of financial and emotional collapse.
The Torah has a profound understanding that there will always be rich and poor among us. Each presents its own sacred and ethical challenges.
But the Torah also teaches us that life is a gift, and everything we have-no matter how hard we worked for it-comes as a blessing from God.
Our tradition does not ask us to thank God for money, only to use it wisely, as an extension of the Godly spark within our inner being.
When I was nine years old, soon after my father launched his hardware business, a customer came to him with a big order of saws, hammers and screwdrivers. It depleted my father’s inventory.
I remember my family’s joy: we’d made it.
But that joy was doused a few days later when my father found out that the buyer, soon after making the purchase on credit, declared bankruptcy.
“How will we survive?” That’s what I overheard my parents asking one another at the kitchen table.
But in came my grandparents, Bubbie Rivka and Zaidie Duddie (of blessed memory) who owned a small grocery store. Without being asked, they provided groceries, and agreed to convert various coupons my parents presented to cash.
My Zaidie Nissan and Bubba Sheva (of blessed memory) provided extra dollars, which served as a down payment to buy a modest house in the suburbs, where we could get a fresh start.
My parents eventually recovered, rebuilt, and flourished, and perhaps part of the reason I’m privileged to share these words with you today is that my grandparents showed us such loving-kindness.
Our Torah portion reminds us this week that it is important to till and respect the land, and make a living-but, perhaps most essentially, to keep an eye out for each other-family, friend or stranger-and catch each other before we fall.
For while each us has worked hard for what we have acquired, we have not accomplished this alone.
Let us consider how we can use our assets not only to sustain ourselves, but also to elevate the lives of others. Because we’ve all been there.
Is there someone in our lives who we can help before we are asked? As the Torah teaches us this week, it is our responsibility to hold up those who stumble, before they fall.
It also begs the question, as we learn from the story of the elder and the young mohel, is there someone in our past who once sustained us, and if so, how can we pay it forward?
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman