Can We Ever End Poverty?

Rabbi George Stern

Rabbi George Stern

Parshat R’ieh

Reading Parshat R’eih again recently, I was struck by how difficult Moses’ 40-year-plus job was. The guy could never catch a break.

Ever since God approached him to help free the Israelites, he’d had to stand up to power (imagine confronting Pharaoh, even if Pharaoh was the guy who’d raised him), cajole the Hebrews to follow him (and this mysterious God), take scary trips up a stormy mountain, field constant complaints, make sure the men were ready for battle, negotiate with God (no less) and convince the people to listen to and accept all sorts of laws, ritual and secular.

Now, in Deuteronomy he has to share final thoughts with people who may or may not be happy to hear them, and whom he will not be able to follow into the “Promised Land.” While Moses was far from perfect, you’ve got to want to embrace him — maybe even invite him annually into your sukkah.

There is a head-spinning list of threats, promises and demands in this parshah. Let’s unpack just a few verses in Deuteronomy, chapter 15 — not because they are easy to swallow (they are not), but because they are, in the end, hopeful. They remind us that we are, in the words of Psalm 8:6, “little less than divine,” capable of acting as we were, in fact, created: in the image of God.

Deuteronomy 15:4 says, “There shall be no needy among you — since your God will bless you in the land that your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.” Pretty clear and quite wonderful. But then there is this caveat in 15:5: “… if only you heed your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.”

While it’s not unreasonable that there should be “no free rides,” one has to ask somewhat skeptically: “What is meant by “all this instruction”? The following verses provide some answers — suggesting that all refers specifically to rules about combating poverty.

Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.”

I like the notion that I can’t just open my hand, but I must also keep my heart “soft,” cultivate empathy and try to put myself in needy people’s shoes. If all I do is throw some shekels at them, they might never feel good about themselves; worse, they might well despair of ever being able to stand on their own two feet.

The text then shares a specific example (15:9-10): “Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean and give nothing to your needy kin — who will cry out to against you, and you will incur guilt. Give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.”

Every seventh year, debts were to be forgiven. This rule warns: Don’t refuse to make a loan when the seventh year is approaching out of fear that it won’t be repaid. Isn’t that asking a lot of the lender? What does it mean that God rewards good behavior? The text doesn’t say explicitly, but I find that giving of myself (i.e., doing mitzvot) is in and of itself a reward.

A Pirke Avot teaching says, “One mitzvah leads to another.” How? With luck, my good deed will encourage others who see it or hear about it to do the same. Even more likely, the good feelings I get when assisting another human being will make me want to relive that good feeling by performing another mitzvah.

Empathy can be difficult to muster, but the more I cultivate it, the easier it becomes. Moreover, I learn to appreciate my own self-worth when I couple it with the self-worth of another person.

Finally, verse 11 says, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land.” This verse adds an important element of realism: There will always be suffering. Even if we ended poverty, there would still be “needy” people; ending poverty doesn’t exempt us from caring and empathy.

Tikkun olam — repairing the world — is an ongoing process. As we also learn in Pirke Avot, “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We should always strive for the ideal, even if we can never quite get there.

Rabbi Stern is this year’s coordinator of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist minyan at Germantown Jewish Centre and also worships at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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