Leveling the Playing Field

This week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, presents an interesting progression of commandments regarding caring for the less fortunate in our communities and society. First we’re told, in Chapter 15 verses 4 and 5,

“There shall be no needy among you, since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.”

This is reasonable; the Torah-and life itself-is full of rewards and punishments, benefits and consequences of our actions. Throughout the book of Devarim we see this thread… if we follow Godˆs commandments all will be well, and if we don’t, well, it won’t.

But skip one verse and we’re told,

“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”

Thereˆs something interesting here, and I have to thank Rabbi Isacc Mann, who wrote this week’s d’var Torah for the website of my alma mater, the Academy for Jewish Religion. He quotes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who suggested that a person’s natural tendency is to have a soft heart and an open hand; that our default mode is to be generous and reach out to help the poor. It takes effort to harden one’s heart as Pharaoh did despite the severity of the plagues. Similarly, our hands in their natural state are open, indicating a giving and reaching-out stance, and it takes effort to close them them. In effect, the Torah is telling us to maintain our natural inclinations and help the poor.

It seems as though you can’t open Facebook or the mail or answer the phone without being asked to contribute to one cause or charity or another, and perhaps that’s proof that our natural tendency is to be generous; because these requests do often get the desired result. How many Facebook fundraisers surpass their modest starting goals? Quite a few. On the other hand, so many requests can get annoying after a while, and then we begin to close our hands and harden our hearts just a little. Or a lot. We want to be generous, but how far must we stretch? Especially, jumping ahead to verse 11, we’re told,

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

How did we get from “there will be no poor” to “If there are poor” to “there will always be poor” in just a few verses?

The first verse is a goal to strive for, similar to the commandment in next weekˆs reading, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” There seems to be an assumption that the pursuit might not actually reach the goal, and the Torah understands that. It offers us a way to work towards the goal of not having any needy by keeping our hearts soft and our hands open, and in a way, forces-or persuades-us to work towards maintaining our spirit of generosity because help for others will always be needed.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but we can work towards helping to perfect it.


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