Parshat Behar addresses the inevitability of poverty. And though the common translation of Leviticus 25:35 says “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority,” the Torah uses the word “Ki”–not “if,” but “when.” It is bound to occur that we will encounter among us needy whom we must strengthen.
In his commentary on the Torah, the 16th-century Turkish Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh notes that most of the passages leading up to this one are phrased in the plural. The concerns of the Sabbatical year, when the land is not to be farmed, are communal: “And should you (pl.) ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year” (25:20); “Throughout the land that you (pl.) hold, you (pl.) must provide for the redemption of the land” ((25:24). But when it comes to the poverty of an individual, the expectations to respond are delivered not in plural terms, but in the singular: “If your (sing.) kinsman, being in straits, comes under your (sing.) authority, and you (sing.) hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your (sing.) side.”
The Alsheikh hears the Torah responding to common human behavior. All too often, when when approached by those in need, we are good at making referrals. We ourselves cannot help, but we suggest the names of others who can. That’s why fund-raisers understand that mass appeals are effective, but not nearly as productive as face-to-face meetings, labor-intensive though they may be. I hear a public appeal for a worthy cause, and I am confident that the person sitting next to me will support it. But when approached directly and personally, I understand that in this moment, it is up to me.
Certain obligations, like managing a national economic crisis such as the Sabbatical year, require communal commands. But the individual in need can only rely on individuals to help. Come to think of it, when every individual sees it as his or her solemn duty to help, then we truly have a community.