Tables Turned

Friday, 28 January, 2022 - 7:35 am

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the third Chabad Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek) once noticed something extraordinary about his Chassid (follower), Reb Yisroel, a simple storekeeper in Polotzk.

"What have you been up to?" he asked.

After some insistence, Reb Yisroel explained, "The last time I was here, I listened intently to the mystical lessons of the Rebbe.  Being a simple man, I did not understand every word of it. But one teaching I grasped was that our forefather Avraham, because of his abundant acts of kindness, had taken over the job of G-d's attribute of supernal kindness. I was so taken with these words that, although I am in no need of money, I went to my fellow shopkeeper, Nachman, and took out a loan. I wanted to grant him the privilege of doing an act of kindness. Now, in Polotzk, a tradition of sorts has ensued and all the shopkeepers are taking out loans from each other."

The Rebbe later told his son that he saw a pillar of light of G-d's attribute of supernal kindness upon the face of the shopkeeper from Polotzk.


We often think of tzedaka as a mitzvah that exists in order to fill a gap. Since there is no shortage of poor people, we must help feed them. Because there are plenty of lonely people, we ought to invite them in. Due to the bills that synagogues endure, we need to donate. Being that there are ill people, we should visit them.

But, hypothetically, if there would be no paupers, loners, bills or infirm – we would all be better off. This is a mitzvah we really would rather didn’t exist.

While it’s true that we prefer – and pray daily for – a world without these ailments, we would not necessarily all be better off.  Our Sages teach us, “More than the householder does for the pauper, the pauper does for the householder.” The rich man gives money.  The pauper gives a priceless opportunity to uplift one’s soul.

When we help someone, more than doing them a favor, we are doing ourselves a favor. The improvement of their situation comes from the Almighty.  When we elect to be His messengers, we do ourselves a favor, bringing our soul closer to its Source.


The shopkeepers of Polotzk may not have had a need for loans. But they were no Chelmites.

They internalized this deep notion that you get more than you give.  Notice, as well, that Reb Yisroel did not search for someone to loan money to. Rather he asked someone to borrow money. He wanted to give someone else the privilege of this great mitzvah.

They took to heart the words in this week’s parsha Mishpatim, “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, you shall not behave toward him as a creditor; you shall not impose interest upon him.”

This attitude is not only due to sensitivity and generosity. It isn’t solely due to rachmanus (pity) that we treat the poor with dignity. Such an attitude still pits the haves versus the have-nots.

And it isn’t merely because we are grateful that the table is not turned around.

It’s because the table really is turned around. 

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