The Poor and Needy In Our Land: Are We A Light, or Lagging Behind? Re’eh

Have I found a solution?? Yes, but I am not sure that I like or accept it.

Last year, and many times in the past I have noted that I am puzzled and disturbed by the apparent contradiction in Parashat Re’eh between “There shall be no needy among you since Adonai your God will bless you in the Land that Adonai your God is giving you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) and “”For there will never cease to be needy ones in The Land. That is why I command you to surely open our hand to your brother/sister, and to the poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

The two statements come as Moses is reviewing the laws of tithing, remission of debts in the sabbatical year and the obligation not to harden our hearts to the needs to those in need.  However, no matter how many times I read the Torah, I almost always see something I previously missed, or read differently.  The prophecy that there will be no needy among us is qualified in the following verse, “If only you heed Adonai your God and take care to observe this commandment that I command you this day.”  (15:5). When we read 15:11 we are told that the reason for these commandments is because there will never cease to poor and needy. Perhaps the implication is that, while the reality is that there will always be some percentage of our society who will experience need, we do not need to feel helpless. We have the ability and the obligation as human beings and as Jews to implement the policies that can seriously reduce, and even eliminate need and poverty. (I explained last year, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the difference between the evyon (needy person) and ani (person living in poverty) is that poverty is a financial situation, whereas the need refers to a state of dependency, and perhaps being forced to do things one would not want to do because of that dependency. Financial need generally leads to dependency.) While last year I quoted Ibn Ezra, who highlights the conditional nature of the prophecy, I didn’t read the text carefully enough to understand that this is the pshat, the plain meaning of the text.

If I stop here, this is a message that I believe in with all my heart and soul.  However, one could also read this as saying, “I know that you won’t fully observe these commandments, so I know that there will always be poverty and need.”  Rashbam says that there is no person so much a tzadiq (a righteous person) that s/he does not sin in these matters. Ramban says it could not be that Moses definitively says the Israelites  will not observe the Torah (although he does just that at the end of Deuteronomy). Rather, he argues that Moses already knows that we will not all observe these commandments for all time.

Like Ramban, I can’t accept the inevitability that we cannot take the necessary actions to eliminate poverty and need.  If we read this as saying that elimination of poverty is contingent on observing all of God’s commandments throughout all the generations, history has shown that Ramban is correct.  However, I read the Torah here as saying that we must observe these specific poverty related commandments in order to eliminate poverty and need. Even if we haven’t succeeded in every generation (Soforno says that the first generation to enter the Land of Israel in Joshua’s time did.), what about today?  There isn’t even one tzadiq who will at least observe the commandments here regarding our obligation to take care of each other?  My faith is based on the idea that we can and must be God’s partners in building the better world God demands of us, and desires for us.

The midrash teaches us that a place to sleep is included when we are taught in 15:8 that “You must open your hand and lend him/her sufficient for whatever s/he needs.”

On July 28th, a Hebrew article appeared in YNet about people who are afraid of losing their apartments because they can no longer pay rent.   Masarat Paskhi is a single mother of 2, and has placed on unpaid leave during the first Covid 19 closure. She has had some work hours restored, but has huge debts,  “My greatest fear is that I won’t be able to pay rent and will need to leave my apartment…I see how people live who have been thrown into the street, and I don’t want to get to that. More than I fear for myself, I fear for my children.”  She has brought all the necessary documents to all the government offices, but there is no help in sight. “It would be so wonderful if they allowed people in my condition to live in public housing. My biggest expense eating up all of my salary goes to rent payments. “

Those living in poverty in Israel pay some 70% of their salary for rent. This is because only 2% of housing in Israel is public housing, with rent adjusted to what people can afford. The average in Europe is 12% public housing.

Yossi is married and has one child, “I was placed on unpaid leave because of corona. I worked has a driver for a private company. My wife works, but has a very low salary. I must pay the rent. Rent eats up everything we receive as compensation for being on unpaid leave.  This impacts on our lives, on our finances. We have loans and rent and I am already NIS 10,000 in debt.  If this continues, I will collapse. I don’t know what to do. I am afraid that I won’t have roof over my head because of this situation.  It doesn’t matter to my landlord that I am not working. He needs his money on time.  I am afraid that he will evict us, and we won’t have any place to go. I have a young child.”

These are only two of those interviewed in the article.

Many of the commentators on our portion solve the seeming contradiction by saying that there will be poverty among others, but not among Jews. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes that poverty and need are the way of the world, but they shouldn’t take place in the Land being governed by God’s commandments . However, today’s reality is just the opposite.  There are ways of increasing housing security being employed in other countries that we are ignoring. We are far from the poorest nation in the world.  But comparing ourselves to countries with similar resources, we have more poverty and need than many.

As to the distinction between our Land and other lands, between Jews and non-Jews, 15:11 makes a point of mentioning both our “brothers and sisters,” and all of the poor and needy in our Land. While I don’t see only my fellow Jews as brothers and sisters, this verse seems to be emphasizing the need to care for both. If one chooses to read “the poor and needy in your Land” not in contrast to “brothers and sisters,” but rather as an explanation of who your brothers and sisters are, we have the choice to interpret whether this is only those related to us, or all the poor and needy in the Land.

Or Khayim says that it is within our ability to eliminate poverty and need, and cites the verse in this week’s haftarah.  Isaiah prophecies “You shall be established through righteousness/justice. You shall be safe/keep far from oppression. “ (54:14) Those who interpret the verse to read “you shall keep far from oppression contrast this from the way of other earthly rulers who oppress other peoples.  For example, Ibn Ezra writes, “You will not oppress other peoples as is the way of kings.” Radak says that righteousness and justice we will be a great force in the world, and we will keep ourselves far from oppressing human beings.

These lines could be next year’s dvar Torah if we don’t cease to rule over others.  However, in the context of this year’s dvar Torah, these lines serve to further highlight the irony that rather than differentiating ourselves from other nations by establishing a just society and shunning oppression, we are lagging behind in terms of available solutions to housing insecurity. Rather than living so that we are not afflicted by the need and poverty found in other lands, our rejection of the solutions used elsewhere have brought us greater poverty and need. That Is also a form of oppression, as Masarat and Yossi so deeply feel.

I wish to conclude by returning to my faith that poverty and need are not inevitable, and that our task on this earth is to help improve the lot of all humanity.  The 12 century tosafist and Torah commentator Yosef Bekhor Shor doesn’t read the word “ki” as meaning “For” there will never cease to be needy…,” but rather as akin to “dilma,” or “shema,”  meaning “lest” or “perhaps” there will never cease to be needy….”  Therefore, he writes, God has given us commandments showing us the way so that there will not always be poor and needy in our land.

May it be God’s Will that we will learn.

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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