Thursday, August 21, 2014

Parashat Re'eh: Is Poverty Eternal?

Out of the wide range of subjects in this week’s Torah reading I will focus on two textual puzzles. 
‎The first relates to Deuteronomy 12:28 “Observe and hear all these words which I command you, ‎that it may go well with you… when you do what is good and right in the eyes of YHVH your ‎God.” The simple meaning of the verse, like many others in Deuteronomy, is to encourage keeping ‎the commandments despite the difficulties involved. 
Are “the good” and “the right” synonyms or ‎do they represent different concepts? Many traditional sources quote a disagreement between Rabbi ‎Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, in which Rabbi Akiva states, “Good in God’s eyes and right in human ‎eyes,” while Rabbi Ishmael says opposite. The disagreement is a bit strange because the verse is ‎quite clear, “in the eyes of YHVH your God.” 
However, it does point towards a difference in the ‎human and divine perspectives. Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in the Torah Temimah develops the ‎idea and explains, “Something that is incomplete cannot be called ‘good’ even if it seems good at ‎the beginning. Therefore, things that seem good to us can only be called ‘right,’ because calling ‎them ‘good’ requires knowing the future, which is beyond human capabilities.” 
To this Prof. ‎Yeshayahu Leibowitz adds, “We must consider this seriously because many people who certainly ‎had good and pure motives have done harm to themselves and those around them…” I do not know ‎when he wrote this and to whom he was referring but there is no doubt that this does happen. 
‎Therefore, we must act cautiously, taking the longest, broadest perspective we can manage; it ‎behooves us to proceed cautiously because we lack a divine perspective as to the final results of our ‎efforts.‎

However, taking due caution must not prevent us from taking an active role in the world, as we can learn ‎from Chapter 15, where we find two opposite statements about the future socioeconomic situation. ‎In verse 4 it says, “There shall be no poor among you,” but in verse 11, “and the poor shall never ‎cease.” Some of the information necessary to resolve the contradiction is found within the same ‎section, “You shall surely give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; ‎because therefore YHVH your God will bless you in all your work (verse 10).” ‎

Does this mean that elimination of poverty is a reward that God grants for keeping his ‎commandments? 
I think not. There is a blessing in keeping the commandments but the end of poverty is not ‎a prize, but rather a direct result of keeping the commandments that are enumerated in this chapter ‎and elsewhere: tithes, agricultural gifts to the poor, sabbatical years, including the needy in holiday ‎celebrations etc. We may not wait for a heavenly solution for problems when the necessary tools ‎have been placed at our doorstep. We need to pick up the tools and use them.‎
In immediate situations of crisis, the commandment is clear and can be implemented as written: “If ‎there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, in any of your gates, in your land which ‎Adonai your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand… (verse 7).” ‎However the large-scale tools, the Bible’s systemic solutions, like the sabbatical year and agricultural ‎gifts, need to be adapted to modern economies. Leibowitz addresses this in another article: “The ‎reality of recent generations is one that the classic Jewish tradition could not have anticipated. All of ‎our social, economic and political problems require new thinking. 
Note the word “require.” We ‎have an obligation to deal with the problems, to make an effort to eliminate poverty and close social ‎gaps, we cannot ignore suffering or postpone difficult questions to a more convenient time. The ‎ways of dealing with these problems must be clarified in civil and political frameworks, without ‎whitewash or prejudice. The Torah commands that gifts be left for the poor during every harvest – ‎meaning during every production cycle – while tithes and sabbatical years occur at regular intervals. ‎We, too, must make the effort necessary to bring God’s blessings into the world even when there ‎seem to be constraints that might justify a postponement.‎
Kehillat Hod Vehadar 2012

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