Upside Down

This week’s parashah outlines the planning for the construction of a portable sanctuary as a “home” (so to speak) for Hashem amidst the people of Israel. The Mishkan, as it was called, was built with materials donated by the people enthusiastically and wholeheartedly. Our Sages often expound on the greatness of the mitzvah of tzedakah — giving charity — when learning this section of the Torah.

Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, zt”l, the Ben Ish Chai, reveals an important insight as to the nature of charity and the benefits it offers.

Once there was a man who lived in a small town who earned a living by selling wine to the townspeople. He did so honestly and diligently for many years and was able to support his family comfortably. Unfortunately, another wine merchant moved to town and opened his own store for business. The newcomer was quick to learn that the town was not large enough to support two wine stores and began plotting to steal the local merchant’s loyal customers.

His plan was ingenious. Right before the busy season of Purim and Pesach, he hired two men to go sit in the local coffee shop and talk “innocently” about the problems the local merchant was suffering.

“Who would believe that poor Reuben’s wine would start to go sour and turn to vinegar right before the holidays? I don’t know how he is going to survive,” said the first hired actor.

“I don’t know what he is going to do! Although I feel bad for him, I cannot take a chance of being without wine for the Seder. I think I am going to buy from the new store that opened in town,” replied the second.

After the two had repeated their act in several well-populated establishments and meeting places, most of the town had heard about Reuben’s “problem” and believed what they heard. As a result, they flocked to the new merchant’s store. Reuben, in the meantime, could not understand why no one was buying his wine during what was usually his busiest season.

At that time, a strange skin disease started to spread throughout the town. People had boils and itchy patches all over their bodies. No one could relieve the townspeople’s suffering until a specialist from the capital arrived and diagnosed a rare skin malady that could only be cured by soaking the affected areas in wine vinegar.

Where could a small town get enough wine vinegar to treat so many people? Everyone rushed to Reuben’s wine shop and demanded that he sell his vinegary wine.

“I don’t have any vinegar!” he protested. “I only have fine kosher wine.”

“Don’t make us take it by force!” demanded the angry crowd. “We’ll pay you double the price of wine for your spoiled wares.”

Although Reuben continued to deny the people’s claim, they persisted in their demands. Frustrated, he opened a spigot in one of his barrels and cried, “Here, taste this! It is fine wine, not vinegar!” But the first sip revealed that it was, in fact, vinegar, not wine. The people lined up and paid a hefty sum for the vinegar that only Reuben had in stock.

Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim explains: Such is the nature of charity. It has great power not only to remove a problem, but also has the unique ability to transform the bad itself into something beneficial. The word for plague or disease in Hebrew is “nega.” If you rearrange those same letters, you get the word “oneg” — pleasure. That is the power of charity: to not only save a person by removing a danger or a problem, but also to transform that same plague into a pleasure and a blessing, to turn it upside down, to make an about-face.

This is a time in our history when performing acts of kindness one to another and providing financial gifts to those in need — especially to those upholding Torah study in the face of adversity — is a primary challenge to all. Knowing this secret of the power of charity should encourage us all to increase our acts of tzedakah.

May Hashem save us all from those who would seek to harm us.

Shabbat shalom.


Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.