You're Poor--I'm Poor*

by Eliezer Segal

Deuteronomy 15

4 But there will be no poor among you (for the Lord will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess), 5 if only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment which I command you this day. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you. 7 "If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, `The seventh year, the year of release is near,' and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.

Back in the '60's, many of us were inspired by the conviction that the Torah is above all else a programme for a just and righteous. Like Perchik in "Fiddler on the Roof," we read the Bible --and it was not really so difficult to do so--as an tract exposing the oppression of the proletariat by unscrupulous employers, and calling for an equitable distribution of wealth.

Decades later, after surviving LBJ's war on poverty and PET's Just Society, and as my neck has been gradually reddening in the capitalistic Alberta environment, my faith in the social message of the Torah suffers a severe blow every year when we get to this week's Parashah. For here we find a brief clause that seems to render the whole enterprise futile and meaningless:

For the poor shall never cease out of the land (Deuteronomy. 15:11).

In these six Hebrew words, we have a divine promise that all our efforts will never succeed in eradicating poverty from the face of the earth! You may appreciate that I find this a very bleak and disturbing prospect.

Some of the commentators have touched on this difficulty, not so much as an ethical issue, but as an exegetical one. Their starting point in most cases is what appears to be one of the most glaring about-faces in the Bible: At the beginning of Deuteronomy Chapter 14, when setting out the rules about the sabbatical years, Moses admonishes us to refrain from collecting any debts from our brothers.

That which is yours with your brother your hand shall release. But there shall be no poor among you; for the Lord shall greatly bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it

.

So according to this verse, we do not have to worry about poverty, because we can count on the divine blessings to ultimately remove the curse of poverty from our community.

What is going on here? Which scenario is the operative one? Can poverty be cured, or is it a permanent feature of the social landscape?

The most popular solution to this conundrum is found in a midrash quoted by Rashi, that both situations are possible, and when all is said and done, the matter lies in our hands. If you act in conformity with the divine will, then there will no longer be any poor among you. Otherwise, they will remain with you.

This approach has much to recommend it, especially if we interpret it not as a promise of reward for following the mizvot, but rather (as I tend to prefer) as a confirmation of the fact that any state that is built entirely on the the principles of the Torah will necessarily contain social institutions that will lift all its citizens above the poverty line.

However, this does not seem to completely resolve the exegetical issue. The declaration For the poor shall never cease seems to be stated in absolute terms. Several of the commentators (for example, Rashbam and Sforno) understand this as if Moses was saying: Yes, you do have it in your power to eliminate poverty from your midst--however, I happen to know that you will never really realize that potential. You are doomed to perpetuate injustices, inequities and therefore, poverty.

Ramban was familiar with that interpretation, and objected to it with great indignation. It is unthinkable (he protested) that the Torah would ever say such a thing, that God has advance knowledge of our ultimate failure to live up to the Torah's standards.

Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz takes up this objection, to launch into a valuable and impassioned tirade against those who read the words of the Nevi'im as if they were inexorable predictions of what will take place in the future:

the connotation of a Divine promise is not like a pagan oracle, which tells us what will occur in the future. Had that been the case, that would not have a religious significance. A divine promise is always a demand made of man: this is the way things ought to be. This ... has extremely profound significance specifically in the realm of faith: No prophet predicts but that which should be--and there is no guarantee that that is the way it will be. This applies equally to Israel's redemption and its return to its land: all of this is what should be, but whether it will be that way depends, at least to some extent, on us.

The Ramban therefore proposes that we read the problematic verse about the persistence of poverty in a very specific manner: True, we are not guaranteeing you that you will fail to establish a just society --but, by the same token, we cannot give you an iron-clad assurance that some day, during the long course of Jewish history and in the infinite range of possible social, economic and and moral situations, the extinct phenomenon of poverty will not again rear its ugly head among us. If (God forbid!) that should occur, then do not forget the guidelines that I am setting before you here about how to deal with the needy with generosity and compassion.

Again, the interpretation is satisfying on the ethical and theological planes, but it seems to require too much tampering with the actual words of the text.

With much trepidation, therefore, I would like to suggest a different path out of the difficulty, one that is more rooted in the logic of the biblical text.

The statement that there shall be no poor among you appears (as noted previously) in the context of a plea to cancel debts on the sabbatical year. As paraphrased by the Riba (Rabbi Judah ben Eliezer):

So that you should not say: How can I cancel my debts, since it will probably bring me to a state of poverty. For this reason it says 'But there shall be no poor among you': the Torah is assuring you that when a creditor cancels a debt, it will not reduce them to poverty.

The reference to poverty here is thus to that of the creditor who is being addressed by the Torah,

On the other hand, in the statement the poor shall never cease out of the land, the reference is to the needy person who should be the recipient of the loan or the object of your generosity.

To my mind, this shift of perspective is a decisive one. The Torah is teaching us a modest, but valuable lesson: We must learn apply to ourselves stricter standards than we apply to others. The truth is that I (usually) have much clearer understandings of my own motives, psychology and thresholds for sufferings than I have for any other human being. Consequently, in the present instance, I should try not to attach great importance to my potential economic inconvenience, if it will prevent me from carrying out my philanthropic obligations towards others. On the other hand, however, when dealing with another human being, I should regard seriously their destitution, even if it might require me to give them the benefit of the doubt; I must recognize that their situation might be more painful to them than it would be to me. Therefore, as illogical as it might sound on the surface, another person's needs should affect me more than my own.

This is a lesson whose applications are not confined to the realm of charity, but can be applied to all our interpersonal relationships. It is always a virtuous and wise policy to be forgiving to others, and to make allowances for mitigating circumstances; while holding oneself up to more demanding standards. It is certainly preferable to its opposite. If nothing else, it makes it considerably easier to deal with the shortcomings of others, and hopefully, it has the potential to make us into better people.


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, August 11, 2007 .