What Do We Owe the Poor? Re’eh

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.

Shabbat Shalom! – Re’eh

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov Elul!

This Shabbat marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. With so much going on, our divrei Torah are particularly rich; our writers examine the confluence of the month, the texts, and world events.

Just as Passover preparation requires turning the house upside down in the search for chametz, the High Holy Day preparation of Elul requires that we turn our internal houses upside down to seek out the issues that we may have hidden from ourselves. Whom have we hurt or offended? With what behaviors do we hurt ourselves? This month calls for rigorous honesty and that, in turn, calls for courage. Fortunately the texts will support us in our preparation.

This week’s parashah is Re’eh, “See!” which is the longest of all the parshiot in the Torah.

All Who Are Thirsty Come to the Water by Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Believing is Seeing by Hannah Perlberger

To See or To Be Seen by Barbara Heller

Show Me the Money! by Rabbi Harry Rothenberg (VIDEO)

Blessing and Curse by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Time to Prepare, Time to Pardon by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

What Do We Owe the Poor? by Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Shabbat Shalom! Eikev

Parashat Eikev might be termed “Parashat Deja Vu.” There is material here that may give us the feeling, “Haven’t I heard this before?”

We hear the story of the Golden Calf again, which we heard once before in Exodus. We hear the story of the making and breaking and remaking of the tablets. We also hear smaller, more recent repetitions: in Deuteronomy 9:1, we hear the formula “Shema, Israel” that we heard earlier at Deuteronomy 6:4.

Why is Moses repeating himself?

We could say, well, Moses was old. He was nearing his 120th year and he was exhausted. Maybe his mind was slipping a bit.

But more likely he had had time, over the forty years, to think about all these stories, and he understood them differently now than he had when they first occurred. Moses has learned and grown, and he is sharing those new insights with his people before his death, and before they enter the Land.

Also, Moses has a new audience: these are the children and grandchildren of the Israelites who left Egypt.

Some insights on the portion:

Thanks for the Memories by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Walking and Listening by Rabbi John Rosove

Walking on the Heels of God by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Stuff Doesn’t Just Happen by Rabbi Don Levy

Jon Stewart and Moses on BS by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

Ekev: On Wealth

Remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm the covenant sworn to your ancestors, as God is doing today.

–Deuteronomy 8:18

It seems to be human nature to give ourselves primary credit for wealth and prosperity.  When a person has worked hard and for many years to reach a place of security, it is only natural take credit for all that work. Parashat Ekev warns us never to forget that no matter how well we have done, humility still applies.

The word usually translated “wealth” In Deuteronomy 8:18 is “Chayil,” the same word we know from Eshet Chayil, the song written out in Proverbs 31, usually translated “A Woman of Valor.” Brown Driver Briggs, the major dictionary for Biblical Hebrew, offers a four part definition of chayil: “strength, efficiency, wealth, army.” If it is strength, it is strength is like that of an army, like that of the woman in Proverbs 31: interconnected, efficient, valorous.

The choice of words in this week’s Torah portion reminds us that whatever wealth we have is not simply our own doing, but the result of a complex mix of effort, energy, valor, persistence, and good fortune – all from God, and interconnected with other human beings, as well.

An entrepreneur works hard for success. Making a business go requires long hours and great risk. But it also requires other factors, interconnections to others. A physical location for business requires roads to reach it, water and sewage, power lines and other businesses to serve it. We may pay for those services, but unless we are on a desert island, we do not have to dig wells for water, build roads for service, pipe the sewage away, and build a power plant! We can call the police or the fire department; we do not have to invent them.

And face it, luck is also a factor. Smart people sometimes bring businesses into being, only to be hit with a stroke of bad luck: a drought, a recession, a change in tastes, an accident, and then instead of wealth, they have nothing but debt.

Opportunity is not equal anywhere in this life. Some people prosper either through their own effort or by inherited advantage. Others never get a chance.

Many people work hard all their lives and have little to show, even though they have done nothing wrong. Others through no fault of their own are disabled by physical or mental illness and are unable to work. We must hold any goods we have with humility.

Shabbat Shalom! – Va’etchanan

Parashat Va’etchanan always falls on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av. It includes the passage Deuteronomy 4:25-40, which contains a prediction that the people of Israel would sin and be forced to leave the Land. That part of the portion is like the last hot breeze blowing from the coals of Tisha B’Av.

Fortunately this is also Shabbat Nachamu, the first of three sabbaths of consolation. The Haftarah for this week is Isaiah 40:1-26 which begins:

Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her
That her term of service is over,
That her iniquity is expiated;
For she has received at the hand of the LORD
Double for all her sins. – Isaiah 40:1-2

A midrash raises an interesting question about the grammar in the opening line. “Comfort” here is a command and it is plural.

Is God comforting Israel? If so, why is the command “Comfort” plural? And why is “comfort” repeated twice as a command? Or is Israel here commanded to comfort God, who was also traumatized by exile? Are we all supposed to comfort each other?

Who is commanded to comfort whom?

The word “comfort” gives us the name for this special Shabbat, “Nachamu.”

More thoughts on the Torah portion:

Ambassador-at-Large by Rabbi Amy Sheinerman

Shabbat Nachamu by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Image by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (Poem, with audio)

Praying the Sh’ma by Rabbi Ruth Adar

The Life You Save by Rabbi David Kasher

A 21st Century Tisha B’Av

Image: A homeless woman huddles on a street corner with her belongings. Photo by fantareis, via pixabay.com.

Judah has gone into exile
In misery and harsh servitude.
When she settled among the nations,
She found no rest.
All her pursuers overtook her
In the narrow places. – Lamentations 1:3

In late summer of 586 BCE, we became a nation of refugees. This verse from the Scroll of Lamentations makes that perfectly clear, and it carries within it a connection to other verses in Torah.

“In the narrow places” is most translators’ rendering of “beyn hamitzarim” (בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים.)* That is a literal translation, but there is another possibility with slightly different voweling. “Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew name for Egypt.

So let’s try that:

All her pursuers overtook her in Egypt.

What was Egypt? Egypt was slavery. It was a prison. It was exile.

In other words, the narrator of the scroll is saying, “I get it. We messed up. And now we are going back to the beginning, to remember where we came from.”

What is it that we must remember, here and now in the 21st century? Where is this verse pointing us? I suggest we remember another verse that references Mitzrayim:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 19:34

In the 21st century, we worry about strangers.

The world is awash in refugees as never before. There are Syrian refugees, fleeing the destruction of their cities as our ancestors fled Jerusalem. There are other refugees, fleeing vengeful gangs in Mexico, fleeing murderous homophobia in Uganda.

You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Under the freeways, in the alleys of our cities, in our parks, the homeless huddle in makeshift camps. Some live in their cars, hanging on to the last vestiges of dignity. Parents hold their children close, and wonder how to feed them.

Young people look at the rising rents and wonder how long they can avoid the furtive camps. How will they ever afford to live? How will they ever have families? They stagger out of college burdened with debt, and they will spend their entire adult lives struggling to pay it. They move to new and unfamiliar cities, less expensive, far from family. That is a different kind of Egypt.

The writer of Lamentations calls to us to remember Egypt. We have been here before, he says.

We are back because we have forgotten the lesson: what it is like to be a wanderer on the earth.

This year the message is urgent: remember, we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. This year, on Tisha B’Av, we must remember what it was like to be a refugee, and then we must get over our fears.

It is time to reach out in recognition and mercy.

 

*Thank you to Akiba, who caught an error in my reading and let me know via the comments. Now corrected.

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Devarim

This week’s Torah portion is the first one in the Book of Deuteronomy, Devarim. That is also the Hebrew name of the book of Deuteronomy, meaning “words” or “things.” In this particular case, it is best translated “words.” The first verse in the parashah is:

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Aravah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. – Deuteronomy 1:1

The People of Israel are camped by the side of the Jordan River, very near the end of their journey. Moses, now aged and infirm, is speaking to this generation, the children of those who left Egypt. He will review their story with them, retelling it, adding and omitting a few things from the earlier version. By the end of the book of Deuteronomy, he will be dead and they will be ready to cross into the Land.

Here are some divrei Torah available online about this parashah:

Listening to the Holy Space Between by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Go Up Already! by Rabbi Don Levy

Religious Reform: Even Moses Did It by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

So Much from One Word by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

To 120: Growing Old, Staying Young by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

On Meaningful Repetition by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Moshe by Rabbi Ari Kahn