Poverty, or Not?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, the Torah makes two apparently conflicting statements, both occurring in chapter 15. The first statement is “There shall be no needy among you since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion” (Deuteronomy 15:4). The second, coming a few verses later, is “If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” (Deuteronomy 15:7). And that is followed by “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…open your hand to the poor” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Is it inevitable that there will be poor people, or not? The Torah tells us that there will be no needy among us, but quickly follows that statement with two opposite statements that instruct us to be generous with the poor, for they will surely exist among us. The answer to this quandary may be found in the second part of verse 4: “If only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” The first verse quoted above, the one that seems to promise that there will be no needy among us, is conditioned upon our loyal and dutiful embrace of God’s commandments, chief among these being the commandment to create a just and balanced society in which those who are blessed with plenty share what they have with those who are less fortunate. So the answer to the quandary is mixed. There may be people in need, but not for long as their needs will be addressed. Some of us will have more and some will have less, some will have good fortune and some will not, but if we create a society based on generosity and sharing, poverty won’t become institutionalized. Those in need will be taken care of.

Judaism has, from time immemorial, mandated a response to the existence of poverty. Rather than consign ourselves to the reality of the poor among us, rather than turn our backs and turn inward, we are commanded to be generous. Yes, commanded, because generosity doesn’t always come naturally. There are rules for giving tzedakah that aim both to uphold the dignity of the recipient and protect the giver as well. These rules are intended not to eliminate poverty, but to accommodate those in need by providing the basics of life to those who cannot provide for themselves. Judaism is not primarily a socialist system, in which everyone is guaranteed to have the same possessions and entitlements. Rather, we are a capitalist system which recognizes that some people will work harder, are more capable, or will have greater fortune, and therefore will have more than others. Our capitalism is modified by a large dose of compassion and mandated generosity for those who do not have enough to get by.

That system may leave us with the dilemma of knowing how much to give, to whom, and how to know that gifts to the poor will be used properly. To some degree, those questions are answered by the laws governing tzedakah. And, to some degree, they are answered by making a leap of faith when we give to the poor, a leap that is rooted in the knowledge that whatever material blessings we enjoy ultimately come from God.

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