This week we will be reading from parashat R’eih. In it we find the following troubling verse, “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your impoverished kin” (Deuteronomy 15:7).
This verse is troubling because Moses is speaking to the Israelites about the kind of society they are obligated to set up in the land of Canaan. The implication being that even if they do everything according to the mitzvot, there is the strong possibility that there will be people in need. As the Plaut commentary notes, “There shouldn’t really be any needy among you … (but) the Torah was in no doubt, however, that poverty would continue to exist.” (Plaut Commentary pg. 1270)
The implication in this verse is that, as a society, we will not fully follow all of God’s laws and that there will be people who suffer for a wide variety of reasons. Because of this, as the second part of the verse indicates, we have a moral and religious obligation to help out.
Embedded in our tradition is the antithesis to the popular “Prosperity Gospel.” Also known as the health and wealth gospel, which evolved post-WWII and became popular in the United States in the 1980s, Judaism takes a dim view on the idea of wealth being a Divine reward and poverty being a Divine punishment.
Instead, according to our tradition, if someone is blessed with wealth, it merely means they have an opportunity to perform the mitzvah of tzedakah. Tzedakah does not mean charity. Charity is a voluntary act. Tzedakah comes from tzedek, meaning justice. Thus, by performing acts of tzedakah, one is really helping to re-balance the scales of justice towards those most in need and those most vulnerable.
Moses Maimonides, a thousand years ago, gave us the eight-tier ladder of tzedakah. It starts with the lowest rung of someone who does not wish to give but does, and goes all the way to the donor and recipient being anonymous to each other. This means that there is room for everyone to participate in this sacred mitzvah.
What we cannot do is harden our heart and shut our hands to those in need. Sadly, there will always be those in need and those suffering. But thankfully we are blessed with the opportunity to perform the mitzvot of tzedakah, chesed (mercy), and gimilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness).
Sadly, in today’s world, we hear far too many conversations about the entitlement that comes with wealth and success as opposed to the obligations that stem from them. On this Shabbat may we all be reminded to count the blessings in our lives and take time to share those blessings with those among us whose hands are reached out in desperate need of blessing as well.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff