‘The Contradiction’ Parashat Re’eh 5783

It is probably the most well-known contradiction in the entire Torah. The two verses in question are separated by only seven verses, making the contradiction nearly impossible to miss. The topic at hand is assisting the needy via loans and charity. First, the Torah forbids a lender from exacting payment on the loan after the seventh (shemita) year. The Torah then suggests that the whole of idea of lending money is irrelevant [Devarim 15:4]: “However, there will be no needy among you, for G-d will surely bless you in the land [He] is giving you for an inheritance to possess.” Instructions are given on how to merit such a blessing [Devarim 15:5]: “All you must do is to heed the Voice of G-d to be careful to perform that which I am commanding you today.” Then the Torah tells us what to do if we do encounter a needy person [Devarim 15:8]: “Open your hand and give him what he is lacking”. The Torah insists that we should be particularly particular with this particular commandment because [Devarim 15:11] “There will never cease to be needy within the land.” Hold on a minute – didn’t the Torah just finish telling us that “there will be no needy among you”?

The most obvious way to rectify “The Contradiction” is to conclude that the person who is needy has not listened to the Torah’s good advice. By spurning G-d’s commandments, he has brought destitution upon himself. This is precisely the answer provided by Rashi[1]: “When you perform the will of the Omnipresent, there will be needy among others but not among you. If, however, you do not perform the will of the Omnipresent, there will be needy among you”. Truthfully, this answer is somewhat disheartening. If the Torah is predicting that there will always be needy people, it is by definition predicting that there will always be sinful people and that mankind will never reach “the next level”. This prediction is untenable. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [97b] brings a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the future redemption is contingent upon repentance, such that there is a real possibility that an impenitent mankind will never be redeemed. Rabbi Joshua agrees with Rabbi Eliezer’s claim that the future redemption is contingent upon repentance but he posits that man will eventually repent, even if it requires a despot “with decrees as bad as Haman’s” to force them to do so. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Rabbi Joshua prevails over Rabbi Eliezer and the normative halacha is as per Rabbi Joshua. The Rambam, writing in Hilchot Teshuva [7:5], rules “The Torah has already promised that, ultimately, Israel will repent towards the end of her exile and immediately she will be redeemed”. If there are no more sinners, how, then, are we to reconcile “The Contradiction”?

A comment by the Kli Yakar[2] can help get our cart out of the mud. Warning: Readers living in the Diaspora might find the Kli Yakar’s words disparaging. The Kli Yakar is disturbed not only by “The Contradiction” but by the wording of the verses discussing the necessity of giving charity [Devarim 15:7]: “If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land that G-d is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand…” Isn’t charity a global obligation, whether a person lives “in one of your cites”, that is to say, in the Land of Israel, or anywhere else in the world? And why does the Torah conclude its commandment with similar words [Devarim 15:11] “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one [specifically] in your land”?

The Kli Yakar begins his answer[3] by asserting that when the Torah states that “there will be no needy among you”, it is referring to a time in which Jews are submitting themselves to the will of G-d. But, as we asked above, if everyone is keeping all of the commandments, where, then, does our needy person come from? To answer this question, we require some background. In the year 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, destroyed the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) and exiled most of the Jewish People to Babylonia. About seventy years later, as predicted by the prophet Jeremiah, Cyrus, King of Persia[4], allowed the Jewish People to return to the Land of Israel. This did not bode well with the exiled Jews, who were just beginning to become comfortable with their new surroundings and very few of them heeded Cyrus’s call. The first chapters of the Book of Ezra describe how less than fifty thousand people returned to rebuild their National Home and seven thousand of these people were not even Jewish[5]. The returnees were to a great extent the riffraff of society. Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky, in an essay on the Hatanakh website, writes “Those who did return were reproached by [the prophets] Hagai and Zechariah for their apathy and required constant goading and emphatic leadership to finally complete [building] the Temple”.

Now we can return to the explanation of the Kli Yakar. When the Torah says “There will never cease to be needy within the [generic] land”, it referring to people living outside of Israel. The Kli Yakar writes, “When these people do not conform to the Will of G-d by returning to the Land of Israel along with their brethren, as in the time of Ezra, then there, in the land of their exile, they will be subject to destitution”. Where will these people seek charity? In the Land of Israel, in “your land”, where G-d has promised to bless His people with wealth.

Let us assess this explanation. The Torah’s prediction of a future eradication of poverty is relevant only to those who perform G-d’s Will. Its prediction of continued poverty is relevant only to who do not perform G-d’s Will. While, as Rabbi Joshua contends, there will come a time when mankind repents and the Jewish People are redeemed, nevertheless Jews will continue to live in the Diaspora, where they will continue to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Are these people considered “sinners”? No, otherwise the redemption would not have occurred. But are they “conforming to the will of G-d”? Also no.

After two thousand years of Roman exile, the Jewish People have begun once again to return to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich, the previous Headmaster (Rosh Yeshiva) of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, refused[6] to go so far as to say that we are in the midst of our redemption. Rather, he felt that if we play our cards right, this return to Zion could become our redemption. When we moved to Israel more than forty years ago, Israel was a third-world country. It had a socialist economy supervised by the “Mother of all Unions”, the Histadrut. Its yearly inflation rate was more than 120%. It had no known fossil fuel resources. Not only did it receive nearly two billion dollars each year in military assistance from the U.S., it received another one billion dollars yearly in Economic Support Funds (ESF). People were certainly not coming to Israel to improve their financial situation. Now fast forward by only two generations and things look very different. Israel today has a much more capitalist economy. The Histadrut, while still powerful, is but a shadow of its former self. The yearly inflation rate is hovering at about five percent, about half the EU average. Natural gas deposits discovered under the floor of the Mediterranean Sea endow Israel with proven reserves equivalent to 17.6 times its annual consumption. And while Israel still receives $3.8 billion in yearly military assistance from the U.S., since 2008 it has not received one dollar in ESF. GDP is growing exponentially and the high-tech sector is booming. While there are real problems with the unequal dispersal of the wealth, it is not a stretch to say that we are nearing a time in which “there will be no needy among you”. To paraphrase my INFI-1 professor at the Technion, the conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[2] Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, who was the Chief Rabbi of Prague in the beginning of the seventeenth century, wrote a commentary on the Torah called “Kli Yakar”.

[3] He actually begins his answer with the words “Rather, this is most certainly the explanation…”

[4] The Persians had overthrown the Babylonians.

[5] While it is unclear how many Jews were living in Persia, some scholars put the number at around one million. This means that less than 5% of them returned to Israel.

[6] See “Mesilot Bi’levavam” at length

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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