It Doesn’t Hurt to Be Reminded
The Torah has a very realistic view of the socio-economic conditions facing society and attempts to impose certain rules of fairness to make societal life livable. It realizes that poverty is a systemic problem which will never disappear and lays down rules which implore those who are better off to help those in need:
Should your relative comes to ruin and sells his holding, his redeemer who is related to him shall come and redeem what his brother sold. (Leviticus 25:25)
And should your relative come to ruin and his hand buckle under you, you shall hold him as a sojourning settler, and he shall live under you. You shall not take from him advance interest or accrued interest, and you shall fear you God that your brother may live with you. (Leviticus 25:35-36)
Without getting into the details of these arrangements, their point is to ensure that those who have, help or, at the very least, do not take advantage of the have-nots and make their lives unlivable. The following midrash attempts to underpin these obligations by associating them with verses from Sefer Mishle, the Book of Proverbs, which outline religious obligations to the poor (I have marked in bold letters the important ideas in the midrash to make the argument easier to follow.):
“And when your relative comes to ruins and sells his holding […]. And when your relative becomes poor, and his hand buckles.” About this text, it is written: “Do not rob the poor for he is poor… For the Lord will argue their case.” (Proverbs 22:22-23) The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Do not rob the poor for he is poor,’ for I have made him poor. Anyone who robs him or mocks the poor man reviles his Maker (God), [it is] as if he is mocking Me, as stated: ‘One who oppresses the poor person insults his Maker …’ (Proverbs 14:31)
What is the meaning of: ‘Do not rob the poor’? Is there someone robbing the poor? What is there to rob, when he does not have anything? Rather, if you were accustomed to maintaining him, and you have reconsidered and said, ‘How long shall I provide for him,’ and you [then] refrain from giving to him; if you do this, know that you are robbing him. Thus, ‘Do not rob the poor for he is poor’ (Proverbs 22:22); but rather maintain him, because he has no other livelihood.
‘And do not oppress the poor in the gate’ (Ibid) – lest I (God) stop up the heavens on account of you; for even the heavens have a gate, as stated: ‘and this is the gate of the heavens.’ (Genesis 28:17)
‘For the Lord will argue their case.’ (Proverbs 22:23) – I am pleading [their case] with you, for I made him poor and you rich. If I reverse his charm and make him rich and you poor, as it says: ‘Rich and poor meet; the Lord made them all.’ (Proverbs 22:2) Why? ‘For the Lord will argue their case.’ (Proverbs 22:23) Why so much? Because you diminish their life (nefesh), if you do not maintain him. Therefore [it says], “and he will deprive those who deprive them of life (nefesh).’ (Ibid) (adapted from Tanhuma Behar 2)
Implicit in this midrash is the idea that God is the arbiter of who is rich and who is poor. Therefore, any mistreatment of those who are poor is to be considered a direct insult to God. Accordingly, those who have means have a God-given mandate to support the needy. This midrash reinforces this idea with the rabbinic theology of “midah k’neged midah – measure for measure”, namely, that human generosity or lack thereof will be answered in kind by God in the natural world. The midrash ends its argument for human responsibility for the poor with a utilitarian reminder that fortunes change and since the potential exists for the rich person to become poor and visa-versa, it is wise that each of us show concern for the needy.
It is not surprising that the author of this midrash felt compelled to reinforce the idea of societal responsibility for the needy in such a forceful way, since societies throughout history have debated the need to show concern for the have nots. The Torah makes explicit where it stands on this question and the author of this midrash sought to put all doubts to rest.