If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter with you, you will support him…(25:35)
The Midrash uses a verse from Psalms (41:2) to explain the above verse: Praiseworthy is one who contemplates the needy…But shouldn’t the verse read, Praiseworthy is one who gives to the needy? The Midrash answers its own question by saying that you should look at the needy person and contemplate how you may gain merit through him. This is bizarre; it implies one should look at the benefit (s)he will receive by helping the person in need. Shouldn’t “one who contemplates” focus on the needy rather than on himself or herself? The answer will give a methodology for motivating oneself to do the right thing, even when (s)he doesn’t feel the urge to do so.
If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter with you, you will support him…(25:35). On the words “you will support him” Rashi comments,
Do not allow him to fall down and collapse altogether, in which case it would be difficult to pick him up again [from his dire poverty]. Rather, “support him” while his hand is still faltering [for then it is easier to help him out of his trouble]. 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, [even] five people cannot pick it up.
The verse speaks about one who is faltering but has not yet fallen. He might be bent over, but he is still standing. A perceptive person will not be deceived by his friend, who outwardly shows that he is coping with his struggles. Rather, a thoughtful and sensitive person will see how he can help his friend to stabilize the precarious situation in which he finds himself and take concrete steps (actions) to ensure that the faltering does not turn into a full-blown collapse, which will be much harder to reverse. Rashi (quoted above) said it can be compared to a load on a donkey. When the donkey falters under its load, one person can help the overburdened animal but when it falls, even five people cannot pick it up.
A theological principle emerges from this explanation of the Midrash. If someone you know is having a challenge, financially or emotionally, if you wait for the person to fall into ruin before extending a helping hand, then G-d will relate to you in that way. He will help you in your hour of need, but only after you, too, have suffered with illness, financial, or emotional breakdown. Instead of pretending not to notice when your friend begins to falter, it is wise for you to think about yourself and how you would want G-d to be there when you begin to falter. It behooves you to “contemplate the needy” by helping them before they fall so that G-d will help you when you begin sinking life’s quicksand. Perhaps this is the reason it says “If your brother…” and not “if your fellow,” as it says in so many other places in the Torah. We need to view the faltering person as a brother, someone we would help the minute we found out he was in need. Of course, the best situation is when solely through the kindness of your heart you choose to help the person, but just in case you are not motivated to do so, remember the lesson of the Midrash. G-d will be there for you to the degree that you were there for your friend(s). Ultimately, the life you save may be your own.
The follow story was told to Rabbi Pesach Krohn, who included it in his book, The Maggid Speaks. Avraham was a warm and friendly person with a reputation to help others. One afternoon he was in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn on his way to lunch when he saw a well-known Jewish vagabond, Beryl. The word on the street was that he had been a Talmudic scholar in Europe and possessed a sweet melodious voice with which he sang beautiful songs, but after the war he became a recluse, who somehow managed to get by. Avraham saw an opportunity to help; he went over and said, “Reb Beryl, how are you? Please come and join me for lunch; I don’t like to eat alone.” Beryl agreed to sit with him but insisted that he was not in the mood to eat. Avraham was fairly certain that Beryl hadn’t had a decent meal in a while and offered to order him anything he wanted, but the only thing Beryl was willing to accept were two baked apples and a glass of hot tea. The two chatted amicably; after lunch Avraham prepared to leave for a business trip to Binghamton, NY. When he got home his wife tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade him to postpone the four-hour car ride until morning; there was supposed to be a storm that night.
Somewhere on Route 17, past the Tappan Zee Bridge, torrential rains began to make driving almost impossible and before he knew it, Avraham’s car went out of control; he heard a thud and the shatter of glass. His car had plunged into a ditch. He managed to squeeze out of the car; people came over to help and eventually lifted him to safety.
He rode away from the accident with the driver of the tow truck, who suggested that he stay in a local motel (this was long before the days of cell phones and internet). Avraham remembered that he had friends, the Friedman’s, who owned a hotel nearby. It was only a few weeks after Passover and they often stayed there until the summer season began. It was close to midnight but he called; they told him to come over. Knowing that he had just been through a tumultuous experience, they greeted him warmly. Mrs. Friedman acknowledged that he must be exhausted and said, “let me give you something to eat. I just made these.” She brought two baked apples and a glass of hot tea. Coincidence? Avraham didn’t think so.
Whether it is a Holocaust survivor or just a friend who broke up after a few dates, we need to pay attention to the people who have entered our lives. Instead of retreating into your safe zone, try coming out and being there for someone else for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do; you would want someone to do the same if you were in need. If you can’t motivate yourself to act, think about G-d and you for a moment. Even people who never pray, find themselves praying and making deals with G-d when they realize that they are powerless to affect the situation around them. If you want G-d to listen and help you, you need to do the same for your friend. And who knows, it might turn out that the life you save may be your own.
(Sources: Maharam Sofer, Behar p. 124 from Vayikra Rabbah Kleinman Edition, Parsha 34:1; The Maggid Speaks pp. 90-92)