Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Re’eh

The Balance Sheet

He was one of my closest friends back in my graduate school days. I was training for a career in psychology, and he was pursuing a degree in business management. We confided in each other regularly. He knew that to succeed in business, he would have to understand what “makes people tick,” and to gain that understanding, he wanted to “pick my brain.”

I knew that I had a tendency to be idealistic and a bit impractical, and I counted upon his sound business sense to help me remain grounded in the realities of life.

We often found ourselves disagreeing upon fundamental matters. The most formidable gap between us was in our understanding of how to assess the value of another person. His approach was, “Show me his bottom line. If I had access to his financial statement, to his balance sheet, then I would know what he is worth.” For him, the ultimate value of another person depended almost entirely upon that person’s material wealth.

Don’t get me wrong. My friend was not incapable of appreciating the humanity of others. He was generous and charitable, and over the years, he developed into an advocate for the welfare of others. It was just that his standards of success, the way he judged whether or not a person had “made it” in life, were all based upon “the balance sheet.”

As for me, it was difficult back then to come up with an equally simple formula for really knowing another person. It has remained difficult for me ever since.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh, we learn a lesson that always reminds me of those discussions long ago with my businessman friend. The Torah enjoins us to give charity to the poor. “If there be among you a needy man… thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt open thine hand unto him…” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

The Torah does not define “needy.” What exactly is the degree of need which entitles a person to charity? How do I determine the degree of another’s “need” which obligates me to contribute to him?

The Oral Torah, in the Mishnah and Talmud and Codes, elaborates in detail upon these specifics. It defines the degree of poverty which entitles a person to communal funds for his meals and clothing and basic necessities of life. And, yes, it does look at the “bottom line of the balance sheet.”

However, it also looks at some data which is not on the typical balance sheet. For immediately after the verse quoted above, we find the following words: “…and thou shalt surely lend him sufficient for his needs and that which is lacking to him.” (Deuteronomy 15:8) What does the Torah mean by those last phrases?

Rashi tells us that “sufficient for his need” means that you have to meet his needs, but you do not have to make him wealthy. “That which is lacking to him” means that if he was accustomed, before he became impoverished, to ride upon a horse and have a servant run before him, then you must provide him with that horse and that servant.

There is a teaching here of exquisite sensitivity. It is not enough to make sure that the beneficiary’s material needs are satisfied and that he does not go hungry. It is important that he be able to retain at least a measure of his former prestige and dignity. Not only does what he lacks financially need to be redressed, but what he lacks emotionally, must also be provided.

And what does the Torah mean by the “him” in the phrase “lacking to him”? It means, Rashi tells us, that if one aspect of his impoverishment is his loneliness, then we must search for a good wife for him.

The Torah is teaching us the essential lesson here about the nature of the responsibilities of the community to its needy members. We are responsible not merely to examine their balance sheets, and, satisfied that they qualify financially, give them enough of a dole to provide them with food and shelter.

We must look at a different sort of balance sheet entirely, one which takes into account human dignity and the social and emotional condition of the needy person. We must help him salvage some of his self-esteem, and we must do all we can to provide him with proper companionship.

The tragedy of the poor transcends their financial predicament. It includes their intense feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Society must see to it that it addresses “all that is lacking to him.”

This holistic view of the needs of another person is not limited to the charity we give to the poor. Rather, this is the view that we must have of all other human beings. Who they are and what their value is cannot be assessed on the basis of a balance sheet. We cannot limit our appreciation of another person to his or her financial needs.

Rather, we must look at the whole person and realize that he or she has emotional needs, spiritual needs, and social needs. When we relate to another person, we cannot assume that we know them unless we know what they are really lacking in their lives. We may or may not be able to address these higher needs, but we cannot assume that we can judge another person until we can state confidently that we know all that they are lacking.

I return, in conclusion, to my friend from graduate school days. I recently met him at the wedding of his grandchild. He had gained a certain notoriety because he was one of the more prominent victims of the multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that we have all recently read about.

We sat down and talked, and he told me that when he initially learned of how his hard-earned fortune had dissipated, he thought about his significantly reduced balance sheet. “However,” he said, “what hurt me much more was my loss of self-confidence, my radically changed lifestyle, and the way that others mocked me, or worse, pitied me.”

He had learned, albeit the hard way, the lessons of this week’s Torah portion and what it has to teach us about what is really the basis of value and worth.

Thankfully, he concluded our brief conversation with paraphrasing the Torah’s very words: “But today, on the occasion of the wedding of my first grandchild, the balance sheet means nothing. I am not needy. I am happy, I feel accomplished, and I lack nothing.”