- 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 – (Dt. 15:4)
- 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. (Dt. 15:7)
- 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. (Dt. 15:11)
Deuteronomy 15:4 speaks of the institution of shemittah (the sabbatical year) which cancels all debts so that those who have fallen into poverty due to debt are given the opportunity to begin anew, unencumbered. Torah seeks to even the economic playing field, recognizing that the exigencies of life are often uneven and unfair, and the nature of human economic systems is for those who fall into debt to fall deeper into debt. Remitting debts every seventh year affords the poor the opportunity to wipe the slate clean so that, There shall be no needy among you… (Dt. 15:4).
But of course, those living near the margin will frequently fall into debt. Perhaps a drought will be the cause, perhaps another misfortune. Compassionate people living in a society grounded on justice cannot ignore suffering souls in their midst, and wait for the seventh year to erase debt. Hence, Torah tells us, 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 (Deuteronomy 15:7). Torah instructs us to respond to the need when it arises.
Lest we think that our generosity, because it is righteous, is sufficient, Torah reminds us that the obligation to look out for those with less, those who suffer, is an ever-present Jewish obligation. We are to give in response to need, not only in response to how giving makes us feel about ourselves. And so Torah reminds us of the unhappy reality, 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 (Deuteronomy 15:11).
Rabbi Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) extends this teaching in his Mishneh Torah (Gifts to the Poor 7:3) in a direction that at first glance might raise eyebrows:
According to what the poor man is lacking you are commanded to give to him. If he has no clothing, they clothe him. If he has no household goods, they buy it for him. If he has no wife, they arrange for his marriage. And if it be a woman, they arrange for her marriage to a man. Even if the way of a certain poor man had been to ride a horse while a servant runs before him and he became poor and lost his possessions, they buy him a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him, as it is stated, "Enough for his lack which he is lacking" (Deuteronomy 15:8). And though you are commanded to make up for what he lacks, you are not commanded to make him rich.A person accustomed to riding a horse with a servant running before him must be restored to that level of living? Is the Rambam serious? Yes, he is quite serious. Rambam is telling us that tzedakah is not only an act of economic restoration; it is also an act of rehabilitating human dignity. While we are not required to impoverish ourselves on behalf of others –in halakhah #5 Rambam sets limits to our giving to prevent this – the business of tzedakah is fundamentally about human dignity. This is something for all of us to keep in mind in these challenging times.
© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman