By Rabbi Steve Gutow
Deuteronomy Chapter 15 reflects the rather conundrum-like nature of the eternal war against poverty. In an enigmatic turn of phrase the Torah teaches us first that there is no right or justification or moral acceptance of poverty. Verse 4 states unambiguously as a command directly from God: “There shall be no needy among you.” The chapter then continues by making it clear that each of us has a duty to respond to the needy with an open heart, great generosity, without regret, and with the knowledge that God appreciates the response. Then, the Torah suddenly says in verse 11 of chapter 15 that there will never cease to be needy among you. It is as if the Torah recognizes the impossibility of its command. It asks that we do something that it knows cannot be done, that we do our part to alleviate that which cannot be fully alleviated.
The Enigmatic Commandment
The mandate is clear. We must end what cannot be ended. The command rings of a kabbalistic revelation of a perfect state of being that we will never fully experience. After all, how can the law assert that there shall be no needy amongst us? The Torah could have just left that verse out and ordered us to do all we can to alleviate and ameliorate the pain of those in poverty. The answer lies in two concepts of Judaism’s messianic impulse. First Jews must know what a messianic world is like and then Jews must recognize that our mandate is to do all we can to get there. We will not suddenly see the messiah arrive; we will aid in the messiah’s coming.
Rabbinic Judaism And The Tradition
The verses reflect a path for each of us. There must not be poverty but there always will be. As Jews we never get to relax. The mission is in front of us and we have a lot of work to do. The remainder of Jewish tradition seems to respond to this impossible challenge. Exodus Rabbah states that ‘if all the sufferings of the world were gathered [on one side of the scale] and poverty was on the other side, poverty would outweigh them all.’ Rabbinic Judaism endeavors to teach us that poverty is not a sign of lessened humanity and insists that we not neglect those who are poor. As if to make sure we understand God’s vision of the value of the poor, the Talmud states: “neglect not the children of the poor, for from them shall come forth the Torah.”
Again in Baba Batra, the Talmud is clear as when it states that “we are duty bound to observe the mitzvah of ‘tzedakah’ more than all of the other positive commandments.” The tradition insists that we open our homes to the poor on Passover and Sukkot; that we give gifts to those who are hungry; that we leave gleanings in our fields; that we offer a percentage of our crop or our income to those who are poor. Responding to the problems of poverty is not optional in the universe of Jewish action.
The Public Square
How do we bring this mission into today’s world? The intractable battle against poverty, the battle to make sure that there will be no needy among us, must be waged in every possible arena. If the messianic age is to arrive, we must help it along. The battle to end poverty requires work in the public square. In a universe in which millions of people suffer, individual acts of generosity will not even scratch the surface of the problem. Poor people in America, in Israel, and in the world require government resources and legislation if the Biblical command is going to have any chance of being fulfilled. To do our part we must jump into the public debate and demand that Medicaid and food stamps and welfare not be diminished. We must insist that Israel look at the problems of her poor as she maintains her military might. We must recognize that American foreign aid that is given to solve some of the international problems of famine is not discretionary funding. We cannot rationally imagine that we are responding to the Deuteronomic injunction if we do not have the energy and the wisdom to respond to the world’s anguish by entering the political process and doing what we can to make a difference.
The ambiguity of Deuteronomy 15 is not ambiguous at all. We are in a battle that we may not win but that we cannot stop waging. We are doing our part to bring the days of the messiah to our times. The verse from Pirke Avot: “It is not your duty to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it” is the Torah’s message about the fight to end poverty in our midst.
The command is clear and so is the world’s reality. The Torah understands that reality just as determinedly as it rejects our right to live in acceptance of it. There can be no poverty in the world and yet there always will be. Our duty as Jews is to respond and respond and respond.
Questions For Discussion