“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you.” — Leviticus 25:35
The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Behar-Bechukotai from Leviticus 25:1–27:34. Behar means “on the mountain,” and Bechukotai means “my decrees.” The Haftorah is from Jeremiah 16:19–17:14.
In this week’s Torah portion we are specifically commanded to help those in need, especially those who live among us. We read: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them . . . so they can continue to live among you.” I’d like to take a look at the literal translation of this verse from the original Hebrew because from there, we learn an even deeper and particularly relevant lesson on or about how we need to relate to the people in our lives.
Literally, the verse reads: “If your brother is lowered and his hand is failing with you, you shall make him strong . . .” What’s so different about this interpretation? In the general way that we interpret the verse, we are commanded to help out our brethren once they have reached rock bottom. In the more literal translation, we are asked to take pre-emptive action so that no one has to sink so low in the first place. When you see that his hand is failing – when you see that things are going badly for your friend, family member, or acquaintance – that’s the time to make them strong.
The Jewish sages provide an analogy to describe the importance of working proactively to help others. They teach that if you see that the burden on a donkey’s back is shifting, one man can straighten it out and allow the donkey to continue walking. However, if you wait until the donkey collapses from the awkward burden that he cannot bear, even five men cannot get the donkey to rise again.
Taking steps to help those who are struggling is far more effective than helping those who have reached rock bottom. The sages point out that this is true when it comes to a person’s physical and financial well-being, as well as their mental and spiritual welfare.
I once read a story about the powerful professional wrestler Hulk Hogan who almost took his own life. As strong as he is on the outside, on the inside Hogan’s life had taken a bad turn. He had suffered from a car accident and a broken marriage. It was enough to make him give up. But just before Hogan took steps to end his life, a friend called to ask why he seemed so down that day. That simple phone call turned into a lifesaving action that completely turned Hogan’s life around.
Friends, when we see someone struggling with a burden, let’s be quick to lend a hand. We can raise up those who are falling more easily than those who have already fallen to the ground. As we lift up others and lighten their burden, may God shine upon us and do the same.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President