Image: A woman huddles on a sidewalk, her belongings in a cart. Photo via pixabay.com.
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11)
With this statement, Parashat Re’eh explodes the fantasy that someday there will be no poor people. The passage begins with the rules for shmittah, the Sabbatical year, but this verse carries it far beyond. With a stark economic fact— There will always be poor people in the land—and the follow-up, which could be paraphrased, “And you have responsibilities to them,” the Written Torah undergirds the huge body of Oral Torah addressing tzedakah and economic justice.
When Maimonides set out to make a systematic study of our responsibilities to the poor in the Mishnah Torah, he looked to this passage and commentary on it, as well as the commandments and commentary for tithes and the corners of the field. As a collection of verses from the Torah, it seems a motley collection of agricultural laws, tax law trivia, and the law for the Sabbatical year.
However, by Maimonides’ day Oral Torah had developed these raw materials into a well-reasoned program for the care of the poor. This public welfare program of Jewish tradition is not a “War on Poverty.” Grounded in gritty realism, it is a relatively modest program that accepts the existence of poverty without “sending messages,” “teaching lessons,” or punishing the poor for their poverty.
It accepts the idea that some people seem chronically lazy, some are chronically unlucky, some are victims of politics or circumstance, and some have temporary setbacks that require assistance.
The tradition as Maimonides lays it out is full of surprises for the modern reader. If someone says they are hungry, Maimonides demands that we not ask any more questions, but feed them immediately. If they ask for money for clothing, however, we are allowed to make more inquiries about the real need, because that lack is not as likely to kill them as lack of food. If a person is accustomed to riding a horse, he says, then we should supply a horse to them (a very expensive proposition – the equivalent might be a luxury car today!) The dignity of the poor is a matter of great concern to Maimonides: he is willing to stretch the community’s charity budget to avoid shaming a person who has fallen into poverty.
Indeed, all of this is rather alarming reading to have in mind when faced with a panhandler on the street today. Our circumstances have changed in many ways. However, if someone says to me, “Can I have a dollar for food?” I remember Maimonides’ teaching and either offer to buy food or hand them a grocery card that will let them buy a little food. If I have to say no, I remember his teaching and say no as kindly as possible. Above all, I make sure to support the local food bank that feeds anyone who needs it.
What do we owe the poor? We owe them the means to live, and more than that we owe them dignity, no matter our opinion of them or their actions. Jewish tradition sets a high bar even while it acknowledges that “there will always be poor people in the land.”
Part of this d’var Torah previously appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.