The Needy May Never Cease in the Land–But We Can Ensure They Live in Dignity

I was debating somebody this week who argued that the verse from this week’s Torah portion, “There will never cease to be needy in the Land” (Deuteronomy 15:11)  indicates that it is impossible to eradicate poverty, and that it isn’t Jewish that the State would try to do so.  When the verse continues, “Therefore I command you that you shall surely open your hand to your brother/sister,” this refers to private tzedakah, not societal initiatives.  Of course, the Judaism took very seriously that the root of “tzedakah” is “tzedek”-justice.  In the Talmud we are taught how Jews were expected to give between 10-20% of their income to tzedakah.  The community appointed a minimum of two tzedakah collectors, and three distributors (Baba Batra 8b).  In other words, tzedaka was more akin to an obligatory tax than a voluntary contribution.  The collection and the distribution was a community obligation, not a private affair.  To a large degree based on our Torah portion, the tradition went on to describe in great detail what and how we were to care for the needs of those in our community.

As I have written in the past, the issue is complicated even further because a few verses earlier we read, “However, there will be no needy among you, for Adonai will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (15:4)  Rashi points out the contradiction, and solves it by saying that if we do God’s Will, others in the Land will be needy, but not us.  We will have needy among us, if we don’t do God’s Will.    Ibn Ezra is more focused, saying there will be no needy if we obey God’s Instructions how to take care of the needy

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch concentrates on the fact that the Hebrew word for “needy” is “eviyon,” as opposed to “ani,” somebody living in poverty.  He argues that eviyon is somebody forced to do somebody else’s will because he needs a loan.  He goes on to say that this type of dependence has led to the downfall of many states. The “ani” he indicates s/he is dependent for existence, while  eviyon indicates dependence on other human beings.  The goal of a system of tzedakah, the sabbatical year and the jubilee year is to sustain the ani, without making him/her an eviyon. Hirsch believes that ultimately all humanity will be able to independently sit underneath their vines and fig trees (the vision of the prophet Micah 4:4), but it will first be exemplified by the Jewish people in our state.

Hirsch doesn’t actually solve the apparent contradiction between 15:4 and 15:11. When commenting on 15:11, Hirsch takes another tack – similar to Rashi and to Ibn Ezra.  He says that people are not equal, even if we are all of equal worth. Some have devastating and expensive health problems, while other’s do not.  Some inherit more than others. However, we can create a system that allows all to live independently, and with dignity.

Does the State of Israel do this?  For many years we have been on a lemming’s march from a social welfare outlook to a neo-liberal one.  To some degree the split that has developed in the national religious camp is between those advocating to some degree maintaining a social welfare economy, and those who wish to go even further towards neo-liberalism.

In my opinion, we have moved further and further from a society that does what the Torah teaches regarding those in need.  Furthermore, despite the attempts by some political parties to shine a spotlight on socioeconomic justice issues in these elections, we are not even in the situation where we succeeded in the penultimate elections in getting most of the political parties to address the issue of public housing.  That actually led to policy change, as for the first time since the early 90’s we began to acquire new units of public housing.  Much still needs to be done, and I pray that what we have accomplished won’t be swept away.

All people are equal in God’s Eyes, but not in terms of abilities, or the cards life deals them.  Some of the people I meet in need of public housing would not be in need if life had dealt them better cards. Others are clearly dysfunctional, and have made mistakes in their lives. If they hadn’t made these mistakes, they probably wouldn’t need public housing.  All deserve individual, communal AND State efforts to ensure that they live with as much independence and dignity as possible.  I hope that one day, Rabbi Hirsch’s vision will come true-we will be a “light onto the nations” by showing how this vision can become a reality for all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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