Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 15 August 2020 / 25 Av 5780

Give to your Poor - Parashat Re'eh

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The Torah recognizes that there will never be a cure for poverty — the needy will not cease from the earth. But through the Jewish institution of charity, and the various directives of the Torah regarding charity, the Torah expresses the hope that within the Jewish community, every poor man will have an address — I command you… open your hand to your brother, to your poor and your needy in your land.

In the natural order of human events there will be extreme economic differences. Poverty and wealth will co-exist. Men are endowed with unequal abilities and unequal resources. And even if two brothers were to have similar abilities and identical inherited resources, one may have a large family and the other only one child, thus creating substantial disparity in their economic situation. Illness and misfortune further contribute to the disparities. These situations will arise all over the earth —the needy will not cease.

However, the Jew is instructed not to permit them to persist in his land — it is “your” land, and in that land, you must take care of “your brother” and “your poor.” Every poor man is “yours” — the community’s. When this attitude is adopted, poverty and misery should be only a passing phase, which is to be transformed, with Divine assistance, into a happy, dignified existence.

Jewish law sees to it that help and support are assured to every poor man who is in need of assistance, without shame. However, the same law attaches great value to the preservation of independence. A person should be prepared to restrict himself to the barest necessities of life and accept any work — even that considered most menial in the eyes of the world — in order to avoid having to accept charity. Some of our greatest Sages in the Talmud eked out their livelihood as woodcutters, blacksmiths, cobblers, porters and water carriers — with pride.

With this dichotomy — the affluent taking responsibility for his poor, and the poor striving to earn his independent living — the economic disparities, with G-d’s assistance, will be leveled in the Torah society.

  • Source: Commentary, Devarim 15:11

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