One of the Torah sources of the Mitzvah of tzedakah is in this week’s parsha of R’ei:

“If there will be a destitute person among you, any of your brothers, in any of your cities, in the Land that G‑d, your G‑d, is giving you. You must not harden your heart or shut your hand from your destitute brother. Rather you must surely open your hand to him…”

 In the original text, the Torah uses a compound verb best translated as “Open, you shall open your hand…”  

Whenever the Torah repeats a word or a phrase it is as an instructive emphasis. Rashi comments that this repetition is intended to teach us that one should give again and again. A person who gives may be tired of giving to the same person again or may even be irked when called upon to donate frequently to multiple causes. People find it much easier to give one amount once a year. Individual donors therefore have to be admonished to give repeatedly as the need dictates.

A story is told of a Chassidic Master who told a wealthy magnate who grumbled that he was tired of giving repeatedly, “Why are you not tired of eating repeatedly?”

No Tarrying

Another interpretation of the reason for the repetition of the word for opening one’s hand is based on an observation made in the work Shalmei Todah(written by Rabbi Shlomo Danah, a 19th century Tunisian rabbi) that the initials of these three words ki pasoach tiftach (open, you shall open…) form the Hebrew word teikef, which means “immediately.”

The clear implication of this hint is that one should not tarry when called upon to assist a needy person.

This can explain why the Torah repeats this expression. When a person procrastinates after being told to do something, the commander will usually repeat the command to get the person to comply without delay.

This injunction against tarrying is the basis of a powerful and poignant story recorded in the Talmud (Ta’anis 21a) concerning the Sage Nochum ish Gamzu, one of Rabbi Akiva’s teachers from whom he learned to thank G‑d for everything. “This too is for the good” was his favorite refrain even when it appeared that something very negative occurred.

Yet, despite his obsessive optimism and the positive spin he gave to virtually every negative phenomenon, Nochum Ish Gamzu never forgave himself for the following incident:

“I was once traveling on the road to the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkey-loads; one of food, one of drink, and one of various delicacies. A poor man came and stood before me on the road and said to me, ‘My teacher, sustain me!’ I said to him: ‘wait until I unload from the donkey.’ I did not have a chance to unload the donkey before his soul departed.”

Nochum ish Gamzu blamed his delay for the death of the poor man and accepted upon himself all forms of suffering as penance for what he considered to have been an egregious sin.

In truth, Nochum was not guilty of any crime or moral lapse. If the man had been more forceful and stated “I’m starving” instead of just “sustain me,” Nochum would certainly have acted with much more haste. Apparently the man did not look deathly ill nor did he convey urgency in his request.

Why then did Nochum blame himself so severely?

Seeing is Penetrating

We can answer this question by first considering the name of this week’s parsha, R’ei, which means “See.”

Since the entire parsha is so named, it stands to reason that this name relates to all of its subjects. One may ask, if this premise is true, then what is the connection of “seeing” to the Mitzvah of tzedakah?

Upon some reflection, we can see that the connection of R’ei to tzedakah is quite obvious. It is not enough to give to the poor and needy. One must also see their plight. It’s not enough to lend an ear to hear directly from the destitute about their dire situation for two reasons:

First, it is very likely that the poor and downtrodden will not share with you all their misery and the deep humiliation of poverty and the need to depend on the kindness of others. The most embarrassing thing for a person is to have to beg for sustenance. And if they are no longer embarrassed that means that they have internalized their degradation to such an extent that it has become an inseparable part of their entire being. They have reached the very nadir of degradation.

Moreover, there are some people who are so anguished that they are struck mute spiritually and can no longer express emotions. This does not mean that they don’t hurt; it just means that they cannot vent their hurt, which compounds their emotional pain. They are forced to keep it bottled up. The only way one can appreciate the measure of their suffering is by seeing into their inner turmoil and pain.

Second, even if they are uninhibited enough to unburden themselves and vent their misery unfiltered, the listener will only be able to pick up some of the most external aspects of their plight. It is in the nature of audio that it is perceived from a distance; the listener stands “outside and eavesdrops.”

To help a needy person requires, first and foremost, that we not only hear their story but we also see what is really going on in their lives. To do that requires us to get closer. One must be able to see, reflect and empathize with the sufferer.

Why the Need to See?

One may wonder, what does the poor person gain whether we see his or her plight or just have a general idea of it? Isn’t the main thing that we help this individual in his or her moment of need?

The answer is twofold:

First, when we empathize with someone we treat them with more sensitivity. The Talmud states that if you give to the poor without sensitivity it can actually cause more pain; he or she might even be better off without your assistance.

Moreover, the Talmud states that even if one does not hurt the beneficiary, one who makes him feel valued by speaking to him with soothing and comforting words deserves more blessings than the one who simply helps materially.

Second, and more importantly, when we see the person’s plight we will not dither in our response. When we see suffering we cannot tolerate it for even a split second. Moreover, when we have insight into the true condition of other we see how acute the situation is and will not delay delivering assistance because our tarrying can cause the other’s condition to deteriorate.

Nochum Heard but did not See

This explains why Nochum ish Gamzu could not forgive himself for taking his time in rendering assistance to the destitute person he met on his way.

Nochum was a man who was usually able to see more deeply into every person and every situation. His eyes were much more penetrating than those of the average person, which explains how we was able to see the good in everything no matter how bad it seemed. His eyes penetrated beneath the surface and saw the hidden good.

Yet, when it came to seeing the hunger, pain and anguish of this starving man, his eyes only saw the exterior of a man who was able to hide his dire situation.

When Nochum ish Gamzu realized that his eyes failed him and his normal penetrating x-ray vision did not function properly so  he did not see the other’s plight, he condemned himself. Nochum most likely said to himself, “How can I, the man with penetrating vision, not have appreciated this man’s suffering?”

Thus, the Talmud relates that Nochum “went and fell on his [the dead starving man’s face] and said, “Let my eyes which took no pity on your eyes, become blind…”

He blamed his eyes for failing to perform their function.

Open Your Eyes!

The lesson for today is obvious.  We must use our eyes in ways that enable us to see beneath the surface of another’s façade.

In addition, we must “open our eyes” to see beneath the façade of our exile. As the Rebbe revealed to us, Redemption is right in front of us. We just have to “open our eyes” to see it. And by opening our eyes we will make the Redemption a palpable reality for all. 

Telling G‑d to Open His “Eyes”

Our Sages teach us that whatever G‑d commands us to do He observes, in His own way. If G‑d asks us to give tzedakah then He surely does so too. G‑d gives us life and sustains us. He provides us with all of our needs and in many cases all of our wants. But the ultimate Tzedakah will be when He takes us out of Galus.

But, just as giving alone does not suffice, we must also see the plight of the destitute and not just hear it from them or about them. So too, we must ask of G‑d that He see our pain and suffering in exile and respond accordingly.

When He sees our pain and suffering G‑d will not tarry. Every second the Galus lingers leads to tragic and lethal consequences for the Jewish people and indeed the entire world, both spiritual and physical.

Responding accordingly also means that G‑d will take us out of exile with compassion and love. Our Sages warned us that one possible scenario for the Final Redemption is a very painful one. We therefore implore G‑d to see that we have suffered enough. We want Moshiach now, and we want the Messianic process to unfold both imminently, and smoothly, with love and compassion.