The Torah in Parashat Re’ei (15:8) presents the mitzva of charity, commanding, “For you shall surely open your hand to your brother, the pauper…”
The Gaon of Vilna found it significant that the Torah formulates the command of charity by depicting the image of an opened hand. This image, the Gaon explained, refers not only to generosity, but also to recognizing the particular needs of the recipient. When a fist is clenched, all the fingers appear to be the same size. It is only when the hand opens, and the fingers are outstretched, that we discern the different size of each finger. The Gaon explains that this is the meaning of the command to “open your hand to your brother” – to recognize and appreciate the unique needs of each and every individual. The verse proceeds to instruct providing the pauper with “dei machsoro asher yechsar lo” – all that the pauper lacks. Rashi, based on the Sifrei and the Gemara (Ketubot 67b), famously comments that this requires providing the pauper even with luxuries and comforts to which he had grown accustomed before financial hardship set in. The example given is that of a wealthy nobleman who was accustomed to have a servant run before his chariot as a sign of honor, and then fell upon hard times. The mitzva of charity requires providing not only the fellow’s basic necessities, but even this luxury of a servant running in front of his chariot. And thus the Torah speaks of opening our hand – to emphasize that we must discern the unique size of every finger, the unique needs of every person, recognizing that all people are different, and that charity must not be approached as a “one-size-fits-all” undertaking.
The Gaon here teaches us that charity and kindness require not only selfless generosity, the desire to give of oneself, but also the humility and open-mindedness necessary to see what other people need. Charity means the ability to imagine ourselves in our fellow’s place, to recognize what is right and beneficial for him, given his unique character, his unique background, and his unique circumstances. It means understanding that people are like the five fingers on our hand – they are very different from one another, and need different forms of assistance. Generosity alone does not necessarily lead us to true kindness, as we might be willing to grant somebody the kind of assistance that we would want, but not the kind of assistance that is right for the individual in need. The Torah’s ideal of kindness is that we open our “hands” and appreciate the distinctiveness of each “finger,” that we recognize that no two people are alike, and that we try to help people in the manner that is best for them, even if we ourselves would want or need something different.