In this week of elections the sedra gives us a guide to good social policy.
Paraphrasing verse 35 ‘if your brother falls on hard times… you shall strengthen him…even the stranger who has become only a sojourner.’
From the phrase, ‘you shall strengthen him’, Rashi writes: ‘do not allow him to fall down and collapse altogether, as it will be difficult to pick him up again. Rather, hold him while his hand is still faltering. To what can this be compared? To a load on a donkey. While it is still on the donkey, one person can grasp it and hold it in place. Once it falls to the ground, however, five people cannot pick it up’.
So, when we see someone begin to struggle, this is the time to provide the support. Don’t wait for him to collapse and only then offer a helping hand. We are entreated to do all we can so that he doesn’t become dependent. We must help him earn a dignified living, and if successful, then he won’t need help later on.
Taking it further, in his treatise on the laws of tzedakah Maimonides writes: ‘there are eight degrees of tzedakah. The highest degree is where one invests in someone facing poverty, giving him a gift or a loan, entering into a business partnership, or providing him with a job in order to prevent him from becoming the subject of tzedakah’. From the phrase ‘you shall strengthen him’ we learn of our social and moral responsibility ‘to intervene before he fails and needs to be supported by others’.
The highest level of tzedakah gives a person a real sense of pride and fiscal independence, so that in time he may offer the same facility to others.
When contemplating these verses, we realise that Rashi is stressing both the idea of human dignity and the economic justification of these actions. When a person has fallen, five people will find it difficult to help him. Conversely, to enable a person to achieve financially self-sufficency, may have only needed the (timely) intervention of one person.
The verse began with a ‘brother’, and ended with a ‘stranger’, to teach us that our duty of care extends widely. Preparing the necessary social policy and welfare infrastructure to support individuals and groups before they collapse is always better than providing emergency relief after they have reached rock-bottom.