We are commanded to help the poor.
However, in the contemporary political discourse, this mitzvah has become so distorted that many are not merely concerned with feeding the poor or housing the homeless, but insist upon lamenting the wealth of others. “Inequality”, we’re told, causes social fissures. Narrowing the ‘inequality gap’, the narrative suggests, is one of the most urgent ethical imperatives of our day.
In addition to the fact that this argument rests on some pretty shaky premises – suggesting that economic life is a zero-sum game, where every shekel your friend accumulates represents one less shekel in the pot for you – it seems contrary to basic Jewish teachings.
As we learn in this week’s parsha (Yitro), on the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks after the Exodus, the nation of Israel assembles at the foot of Mount Sinai. God descends on the mountain and summons Moses to ascend.
God proclaims the Ten Commandments, commanding the people of Israel to believe in God, not to worship idols or take God’s name in vain, to keep Shabbat, honor their parents, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, and not to bear false witness or covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor.
As many commentators have observed, while all the other commandments require that we control our actions and words, the commandment not to covet enters the realm of our thoughts. Why is such ‘thought control’ important in the life of a righteous person? Because being envious of others — either their material possessions or any aspect of their life — represents the opposite of emuna, the belief that God is in charge.
A lesson in fighting our envious inclination was described by a friend who was telling me that her youngest daughter often complains that her older sibling has a tastier snack or a better toy. “Ze lo fair!” זה לא פייר , the Hebrew slang goes. My friend often has to remind her daughter not to worry about what she doesn’t have, but to appreciate what she does have.
If your desire for something is based purely on need, then fulfillment brings contentment. If they desire, however, is based on jealously or coveting the acquisitions of others, then you’re doomed to a life of constant disappointment.
Is there really any better lesson to instill in your children, and to internalize as an adult, than to appreciate what you have, to ignore the advantages or privileges others may have, and to trust God has given you all that you need?