Walter Hilliger
Homme de lettres

The victories of poverty — Part III

The victories of poverty — Part III

Three centuries ago, on the occasion of the founding of the charitable organization Bikur Holim, 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 (London, 5469 – 1709) was never translated into English. I just hope, this translation, more than three hundred years later, does him justice, at last.

On this day, as said, the poor triumph, because, almost single-handedly with few wealthy members, they founded this pious and holy brotherhood. But tell me, poor people near my soul: Do you convince yourselves that the wealthy would let you enjoy this devote and heroic work alone, without them taking part in the major and best part? If you so believe, you live in a delusion; if you so imagine, you live abused lives.

I would, therefore, like to state my position without personal prejudice, but with moral certitude based on one example; please resort to the Holy History and you will find another time like this when the wealthy let the poor contribute first so they could contribute thereafter, more than everyone else. The case was like this:
God ordered Moses contributions for building the Tabernacle, gold, silver, wool, leather, cedar wood, color inks, and precious stones. Moses notified the people of Israel about the divine order, which was thereafter followed with great generosity and without less demand from the wealthy, the middle class and the poor.

Contributions for building the Tabernacle.
Contributions for building the Tabernacle.

Our sages noted, the contributors’ acknowledgments preferred the poor over the wealthy, when the latter should have priority, considering their decorum of dignity and the value of their offerings. Notwithstanding with this, the most unusual and precious was that the wealthy brought the most fragrant perfumes, they brought the most refined drugs and they brought the most cherished jewels (Shemot – Exodus 35:27,28):

והנשאם הביאו את אבני השהם ואת אבני המלאים לאפוד ולחשן
ואת־הבשם ואת־השמן למאור ולשמן המשחה ולקטרת הסמים

Why then are they [the wealthy] mentioned after and not before [the poor]?

The sages answer: The Holy Text did nothing other than follow their lead and assign them the place of their own choice. Having been the last to contribute was the reason to appear last in the acknowledgments. Although the wait was out of caution and not carelessness, having themselves ceded their preference to supply in the end whatever was missing; God was not pleased with this omission, and with good reason, if ten, twenty, hundred or more people could supply everything they needed, thus left them frustrated with their hopes. For this reason, since they were remiss in their contribution, God was also remiss in their acknowledgment; and when the force of truth and history obliges to mention them, it was done manifestly with a defect by skipping the letter Yud of their name, [ והנשא (י) ם ] — “princes”

…since they were remiss in their contribution, God was also remiss in their acknowledgment.

(Rashi’s commentary to Bamidbar – Numbers 7:3; Shemot – Exodus 35:27-28) :

אמרו הנשיאים יתנדבו צבור מה שיתנדבו, ומה שמחסרין אנו משלימין
ולפי שנתעצלו מתחלה נחסרה אות משמם והנשאם כתיב

The princes said, let the people contribute what they can and we will complement whatever is missing.
Since at first, they were lazy a letter was subtracted from their name.

Here we have two cases, where the causes and objectives are equal, yet the consequences are different. The wealthy tarried in contributing as they tarry now. And the bigger the delay made the contribution greater; so is today for the same purpose, with the difference that, back then, the delay was not pleasing to God, while today it is tolerated. The reason is since that contribution was unique and limited, the wealthy could have been easily excluded because the poor, among few or many, could cover everything; but today the contribution must be daily and unlimited and must pay from the first day of foundation. This is not an omission, neglect nor delay, it is fervent enthusiasm and exemplary piety.

The narrative of that contribution prompts me to another issue and another comparison, without doubting that our wealthy were as them, in all good circumstances and intentions, and infallible as follows:

When the poor pays, he tends to bring what he owes to the house of the creditor; when the wealthy pays, he wants the creditor to come to his house to collect what he owes. On the occasion of the Tabernacle, with inner devotion and encouragement, the greater Ancients themselves brought the offering to the treasurer:

והנשאם הביאו

And the princes brought

This was the strangest, the most precious and the most expensive thing:

והנשאם הביאו את אבני השהם וגו  

And the princes brought the Shaham gemstones

Do not be deceived, oh poor mine, be sure that you will not triumph alone, as you imagined because the wealthy will resort to their contributions and they themselves will bring them to your treasurer without waiting to be asked. 

What they will bring will not be of the value you estimated in your contributions, but in the same manner also, if they will not bring precious stones as the great Ancients, they will bring their equivalent in gold to contribute with the customary generosity of Yehudim of this holy, generous and caritative congregation.

והנשאם הביאו את אבני השהם וגו’

And the princes brought the Shaham gemstones.

About the Author
Walter Hilliger is a French Caribbean writer, translator, and publisher of manuscript writings and facsimiles of Sephardic authors of the Grand Siècle, notably Isaac Orobio (1617 - 1787), R. David Nieto (1654 - 1728), Menasseh Ben Israel (1604-1657), R. Moses Raphael d'Aguilar (1615 - 1679) and others. He transcribed, restored, and digitized millions of words generating thousands of translated pages into current Spanish and English.
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