Three centuries ago, David Nieto delivered a eulogy to the Sephardic community of London. He addressed the congregation in Judeo-Spanish. His glorification of beggary sparked great controversy with the materialistic mainstream thought of 18th-century England, yet his publication was never translated into English. I just hope, this translation, more than three hundred years later, does him justice, at last.
Eulogy delivered in solemnity after the founding of the holy society
Bikur Holim, Part I. By David Nieto, London, 5469 (1709).
THE VICTORIES OF POVERTY — Part 1.
It shall be accepted as a bail for a fire offering to the Lord — Leviticus (Vayikra) 22:27
The poor man is safe, as the prize for poverty, the poor man is released from the sentence to Gehinnom — Yevamot 102b.
I do not understand you mortals. Mortals, I do not understand! You all respect poverty and you avoid it. You all respect death, and if you could, would you avoid it? I do not understand. My goodness, what is this? There is no language denying that poverty is the origin of devotion and the companion of humility, the ingenious mother of industry and the arts. There is no one who cannot proclaim death as the end of toil, the stairway to heaven, the passage to glory. However, everyone fears death, everyone avoids it, everyone hates it.
I say it again, I do not understand you. My goodness! Is there anyone closer to God than the poor? No. So assures God himself, saying, although I am in heaven, nevertheless, I am at the same time with the crushed and humble in spirit (Isaiah 57:15). Is there a time when the soul is closer to God as when the soul is apart from the body?
No: And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God, Who gave it. (Kohelet 12:7). And this is known to everyone, evident for everyone and manifested for all; nevertheless, everyone avoids death, everyone fears it and hates it. If we were righteous as Moses, our lawmaker, I would be persuaded that we desire to live a long life, as he did. But since Moses was special in everything, we cannot concede to everyone the attributes which were particular to him.
I do not understand you mortals. After Moses, no prophet was more holy and enthusiast than Eliyahu, who was always fleeing and begging. He was always followed by poverty. Persecution always accompanied him. Even more remarkable, when such a powerful prophet could dispose of heaven and lead the earth, as he wished, he made its elements obey; begging for his livelihood by the river of Kerit, from ravens, from a widow in Zarfat, and from an angel in the desert. When we want to estimate the excessive poverty of someone, we say, so-and-so is poor as Job. That is an estimation, sirs, not true. Although Job lost his livestock, his sons, and his home, he had at least the ruins of his house as a place to abode. Eliyahu never lost his farm because he did not have one. His home never fell into ruins because he never had a residence other than the fields, the forests, the mountains and the wilderness. He never dressed a suit other than a cover of hair with a belt of leather. And this poor pauper, an underdog, despised, without residence, without a house, and without dress, could rise to heaven alive, and exists to this day, alive in heaven: Eliyahu, taken up to the skies in a whirlwind (II Melachim, Kings 2:1).
Consider it, oh wealthy ones, and comfort yourselves, oh poor ones, if you beg on earth like Eliyahu, you could also command the earth and the sky, since owning temporal property depends upon the decrees of God; owning spiritual property depends upon the actions of man. Thus, poor man, you should know, for being wealthy, it is necessary that God makes you so. Being righteous, you can become on your own. Thereafter, God shows up to provide you effective relief:
One who comes to purify himself receives assistance —Yoma 38b.
Without a doubt, poverty is a fierce monster, not giant, because many could triumph over it. Some by suffering it, others by disregarding it. Maybe the judgment of reason reduces it, and perhaps, the devotee of resignation diminishes it.
Death is a much bigger monster, fierce and giant, greedy, ambitious, cruel and voracious. Its name intimidates. Its threats frighten. Its strokes kill. How many broken families? How many unsettled homes? How many provinces destroyed and reigns shattered? Everyone runs away from it, everyone undergoes it. Everyone makes everything possible to avoid it and everyone finds it, in the fields or in the cities, in palaces or in shacks. When it is deemed remote, it is closer; when it seems to retreat, it is not to alleviate the hit, but to make it more painful. Do not let this picture of poverty discourage you, nor the portray of death frighten you, oh devotees, when armed with the swords of enthusiasm and defended by the shield of devotion, you can run to defy poverty, which is universally avoided, and death, to dispel the miseries of it and temper its agonies. Courage then, bold champions of devotion. Courage then, unshakeable pillars of charity. Go and help your sick people and assist your sufferers, favored by the protection of God, the approval of angels, the consent of the council of elders, the praise of the community, the blessing of the wealthy, of the poor, and my own blessing with this eulogy…
*First translation from Judaeo-Spanish by Walter Hilliger, (5777) © 2017.