NewGround-Iftar-Jewish Approaches to Poverty September 16, 2008 Ruth Sohn
Our Rabbis taught: “If all the sufferings and pain in the world were gathered on one side of a scale, and poverty was on the other side, poverty would outweigh them all.” (Ex. Rabbah 31:14) Jewish tradition recognizes poverty as the single greatest cause of human suffering. It calls on us to respond to the needs of the poor with singular urgency.
When people are hungry we are supposed to feed them. When they are in need of clothing we are supposed to clothe them. When they need shelter we are supposed to find shelter for them or bring them into our own homes. (Isaiah 58:7; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7: 3, 7) The physical needs of the poor must be addressed without delay we are taught. But the dignity of the individual in need must be equally our concern. It is not enough to give, how we give is also important. Giving anonymously so the recipient will not feel embarrassed or beholden, we are taught, is better than giving face to face. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:8-10) Giving a smaller amount with a smile and gentle words is better than giving a larger sum of money in an insulting manner (Gifts to the Poor, 10: 13-14) although, as our traditional texts make clear, the ideal is giving generously with an open hand and an open heart (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
But at the same time, we are told, even this is not enough. Efforts to help alleviate the suffering of people who are poor, must be coupled with the goal of eliminating poverty altogether. That’s a pretty tall order. How are we supposed to eliminate poverty?
First, the Torah tells us, we have a special obligation to people who are just starting to slip into poverty (Leviticus 25:35). The medieval commentator Rashi explains it this way: If we see a donkey with a load starting to slip off its back, even one person can help straighten the load and prevent it from falling. But if we fail to act in time and the load falls off the donkey’s back, even 5 people may not be able to lift that load and get it back on the donkey (Rashi on Lev. 25:35). Helping the woman who is struggling to pay the rent on her apartment is far better than waiting to help her until after she has been evicted and is now living on the street with her 3 young children. Helping someone before they become poor can prevent untold future suffering and is far more likely to succeed.
For people who are hovering on the edge of poverty, and for those who are already struggling in poverty, the highest form of assistance, according to Jewish Law, is a job or job training, a loan or education— any kind of assistance that will enable a person to get on their feet again and no longer depend on others for help (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:7). “Helping a person help themselves,” is how we sometimes say it in shorthand. This kind of assistance can help transform the lives of individuals and families, so they can lead productive and satisfying lives and never suffer poverty again. According to Judaism, this is the highest form of help. Programs offering this kind of help exist, in Los Angeles and around the country, and we celebrate them and the
ways in which they are helping untold numbers of people. So why are the numbers of the poor in our society increasing? Why the growing gap between rich and poor?
Interestingly, our earliest and most sacred text, the Torah, addresses this very problem. The Torah calls on us to recognize that poverty has a natural tendency to pull people deeper and deeper into the hole. It calls on us to look for system-wide mechanisms to reverse the downward spiral, for everyone who is poor. And while the mechanisms offered in the Torah are better suited to a simpler agricultural society, the principles behind them can be applied to our own. So what are they? Every seven years, the Torah tells us, all debts must be forgiven. In addition, every poor person who had sold him or herself into indentured servitude because of increased indebtedness, could only be forced to work in that capacity for six years. In the seventh year, they had to be freed (Deuteronomy 15:1-2 and 12). Imagine this: indentured servants freed and debts forgiven every seven years. These laws were clearly intended to limit the downward spiral of poverty. If these laws were followed, extreme impoverishment could only be temporary. It could not be carried over into the next generation. The cycle of poverty we see today, that is so hard to break, was deliberately prevented from coming into being.
The Torah goes even further and calls on us to recognize every 50th year, after 7 cycles of seven years, as the Yovel, or Jubilee year. In the Jubilee year, everyone was supposed to return to their original family land holdings (Leviticus 25:8-10). This is a radical call for redistribution of wealth, returning every fifty years to an equitable distribution of land, so critical to economic well-being. Can we, with our more complex economy, find a comparable way of ensuring that the poor do not keep getting poorer over time? The Torah’s Jubilee laws challenge us to not be satisfied with anything less than eliminating poverty altogether.
The Jubilee Year begins on Yom Kippur, our highest and most holy day, a fast day, and it begins with the blast of the shofar (a ram’s horn) and the words ‘“Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants!” (Leviticus 25:9-10) These famous words are inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. This Bell has remained a symbol of the hopes of liberty and justice for all in American society, since the ringing of the bell marked the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, over 200 years ago. The original declaration in the Torah from thousands of years ago, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants,” has an even more powerful message because of its link to the Jubilee Year. True liberty, the Torah tells us, can only exist when everyone in our society is free from the chains of poverty. This call to end poverty still rings forth, like the Liberty Bell, for all in our society to hear--Jew, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist--everyone.
There is much work to be done. When we come together to learn from each other and each other’s traditions along with our own, we increase the chances that we can work together in meaningful ways. My hope is that we will be inspired to move forward, renewed in our commitment to respond to the challenges of poverty, and renewed in our sense of how much is possible for us to learn and do together.