Several verses in this week’s Torah portion address the topic of charity for the poor. The subject is mentioned in the context of a discussion of the forgiving of loans during the Sabbatical year. During the Sabbatical year, every seventh year, it is forbidden to farm the land. Anything that grows on its own is free to be claimed by all. In addition to the forgiveness of debts, the fact that all produce in the land was freely available to all meant that the poor depended on the Sabbatical year for their livelihood. In this context the Torah states:
However, may there be no needy person among you, as God will surely bless you in the land that God your Lord will give you as an inheritance, to possess it. – Deuteronomy 15:4
Seven verses later, the Torah states:
For needy people will not cease to exist within the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, to your needy in your land.’ – Deuteronomy 15:11
Many commentaries take note of the apparent contradiction between these two verses. Verse 4 states that God will bless us so that there will be no needy people in the land. Then, verse 11 states definitively that there will always be needy people. The Midrash (the ancient teachings of the Jewish sages from between the 1st and 4th centuries) responds to this problem with the following statement:
At a time when you are doing the will of the Omnipresent One there are needy people among others and not among you. When you are not doing the will of the Omnipresent One there are needy people among you. – Sifre 104 as quoted by Rashi
The later commentaries explain the words of this teaching as follows. If the people of Israel follow all of God’s commandments, there will be no poverty. As Nachmanides (13th century) puts it:
It is a promise that there will not be a needy person among [Israel] when they are keeping all the commandments. [God] said ‘But I know that not all the generations for all time will be entirely fulfilling the commandments, to the extent that it would not be needed to command [rules] for the needy at all. – Nachmanides, Deuteronomy 15:11
In other words, the first verse, promising no poverty in Israel, refers to the ideal situation in which all the commandments are being kept and God has removed poverty from the land. The second verse, guaranteeing there will always be needy people, refers to those times in history when the generation is not keeping all of the commandments and there is poverty.
This approach paints a picture of an ideal world in which there is no poverty at all. Let’s imagine such a world. Is a world without poverty truly ideal? If there was no poverty, could there possibly be charity? If no one is needy there is no opportunity to give charity. This may seem to be a strange concern. Obviously, we would all be happy with a world with no poverty. However, in certain critical ways society would certainly suffer if there were no possibility for charity.
The Purpose of Economic Inequality
Rabbi Moshe Shick (Hungary, 19th cent.) sees the second verse – the promise that there will always be needy people – as part of God’s ideal.
[God] planted people in his world, some are rich and some are poor for the good of humanity. If all were rich, there would be no relationships between people and money would be meaningless. Money is merely a tool for the fulfillment of His will and if all [people] were equal, money could never be elevated [to a higher purpose]. – Maharam Shick al haTorah Deuteronomy 11
Seen this way, the fact that some are needy serves a higher purpose. God guarantees that there will always be some needy among us in order to facilitate charitable interactions between people. One may imagine a similar argument for the value of illness as a guarantee that people will continue to visit the sick and pray for them. This approach, while interesting, is admittedly fraught with theological difficulty. Are all the evils of the world to be celebrated as allowing for acts of kindness and heroism? Furthermore, Rabbi Shick’s approach does not help explain the meaning of the first verse which promises no poverty.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th cent.), like Rabbi Shick, sees poverty as a necessity:
It lies quite in the course of the natural development of things that – left to itself – the greatest difference in fortunes, want and surplus, poverty and riches should exist next to one another. The inequality of mental gifts would already produce such inequalities as a natural consequence, and two sons starting from home with exactly equal means, and one having to provide for a single child, the other for a large family would soon present a very considerable difference in their means… But this condition of need which naturally exists elsewhere in the world, you are not allowed to occur in your land, in the land of God’s Torah…. under the regime of a Torah community penury and need would only temporarily affect any individual, and with God’s assistance, be changed to a happy existence on earth commensurate with the dignity of a human being. – S.R. Hirsch on Torah Deuteronomy 15:11
As Rabbi Hirsch sees it, economic inequality and poverty are inevitable features of the natural world. They are the direct result of other imbalances and differences in people’s aspirations and circumstances. The goal of the Torah is not equality of economic status. Rather, the goal is to limit the inevitable poverty to a minimum. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the meaning of the Midrashic quote above is that “when you are doing the will of the Omnipresent One” refers to caring for the needy. In other words, as long as the people do God’s will and care for the poor, there will be no needy people. If we do not do God’s will – we don’t care for the poor – there will be poor people.
Rabbi Hirsch agrees with Rabbi Shick that there is value in the existence of poverty since it facilitates charity. He sees the first verse – the one that promises an end to poverty – as a charge to the people to do something about it rather than as an actual promise that there will be no poverty.
Keeping it Personal
If we accept the approach that poverty serves the higher purpose of creating the context for acts of charity, we must be careful not to undermine charity in other ways. As Rabbi Hirsch puts it:
The notice affixed to houses ‘no beggars need apply, the owners subscribe generously to the public funds’ has not engendered the Jewish spirit which this law has nourished. – S. R. Hirsch Deuteronomy 15:7
Rabbi Hirsch is teaching us an important lesson that is relevant to modern times when government programs have replaced much of the care for the needy that once fell on members of the community. If we start to think of the needy as the government’s problem and content ourselves with the knowledge that our tax dollars help the poor, we may find ourselves falling out of the habit of charitable giving. This is one built-in problem with government programs to alleviate poverty. As Rabbis Shick and Hirsch point out, the preservation of this habit of giving may very well be the reason that God allows poverty to exist at all.