William Hamilton

Meeting Needs

There it was. In plain sight. A single sentence scribbled into thousands of pages of journals. It read: “There are people I do not know yet that need me. That is life.” Bobby Mcilvaine got it, sums up Jennifer Senior, “He understood that our commitments to one another are what we’re here for—and that, in itself, is life. Even when those commitments are hard. Even when they cause us pain.”

Needs are all around you. Sometimes they holler. Sometimes they whisper. Sometimes they rush to the foreground, and sometimes they hibernate. Meeting them matters. Helping others meet theirs, makes you matter even more. 

This week’s portion of Torah has something surprising to say about needs. They’ll never end. “There will never cease to be needy people in your midst” (Deut. 15:11). Why make such a promise? Normally we associate promises with hope, as in promised land or promissory notes. Why promise that there’ll be no end to neediness? 

Perhaps because a fully-lived life will feature its share of disappointments and setbacks. And we’d do well to build our capacity to cope when they inevitably do show up. 

I recently heard a story. A second grade teacher had a problem. One of her students had their wrist watch stolen. That afternoon, she asked all of the students to put on blindfolds and for the student who took the watch to return it. The guilty child did so. Problem solved. But that’s not where the story ends. The child who took the watch went on to become a teacher himself. 

What I love about this story is that the teacher understood that the guilty student needed his dignity. Shaming him would do no good. Once his dignity was restored by keeping his guilt anonymous, it became a lesson he never forgot. It changed his life enough to make him a teacher.. 

The Torah’s discussion of needs uses a rare word for cease (yech-dal). Elsewhere it means something stops on its own (Gen. 18:11, Ex. 9:34). I take this to mean that needs won’t go away on their own. They can only be vacated by your assertive responses to them. Maybe the Torah neediness promise isn’t as hopeless as it seems. Heartening responses can provide food for your hope. 

May you become like that classroom teacher who reinstated dignity. And, in so doing, may you awaken the teacher in others. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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