Once Again About the Needy
We will begin today’s drasha by analyzing several subsequent verses from the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) which are part of the Torah portion read on the Shabbat which falls on the 8th day of Pesach:
There shall be no needy among you — since the [Eternal] your God will bless you in the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you as a hereditary portion— if only you heed the [Eternal] your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.
If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen 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 needy kinsman.
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.
Could it be that the verses quoted above are logically incoherent? In the Hebrew text this seems to be even more evident – in verse 15:4 we have לֹא יִהְיֶה־בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן – (lo jihje beha evyon) – which could be translated literally as, “There shall be no needy among you”; then, in verse 15:7 we have
כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן (ki jihje beha evyon), that is: “If (or because) there is a needy person among you”, and finally we have כִּי לֹא־יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן (ki lo yehdal evyon), that is: “For there will never cease to be needy ones….” Of course all these sentences are formulated in the imperfective aspect (since in the Biblical Hebrew there is strictly speaking no past and future tense, but only imperfective/perfective aspects), and this mode is used to describe not only events in the future tense, but also in the conditional, modal and “commending” mode, due to which the above quoted translation of these verses is appropriate.
Fine, but how is it exactly with the poor and needy ones? Will they exist in a society whose functioning is based on Divine law or will they not? The explanation of this seeming incoherence seems to be simple: namely, it all comes down to the words: “If only you heed the voice of the Eternal…” from verse 15:5. Everything seems to suggest that God, as he speaks through the lips of Moses, is assuming from the very beginning that the system of His laws will not function ideally due to the human component which is the key element of the whole system. Thus we have a full spectrum of possibilities here, in which the number of needy persons in a given society depends on the extent to which the Divine Law is being followed in it, on the level of social sensitivity and on the way in which that society is being ruled.
Of course this topic still remains valid, since in this world there is no society without the poor and the needy, there are only differences with regards to their proportions. But why is caring for the needy important at all times and everywhere? Because the absence of such care in the longer run leads to the increase of the level of social frustration and to resentment, and this in turn creates the grounds for the eruption of all kinds of negative, hateful and fanatic stances. This in consequence leads to the disintegration of social bonds, especially when it creates a sharp social polarization between different groups, no matter if that polarization is real or only invented by politicians-demagogues whose aim is to take over power – the effect will be more or less the same. The greatest danger appears when class divisions start to coincide with racial, national or religious divisions in a given society.
How should we help the needy? I won’t go into political and systemic issues here, since none of the political systems invented so far have been really able to deal with this problem, and that is also why we are forced to shoulder a greater responsibility. In addition, the most effective help can take place only between individuals, and not groups of people – in the latter case we very often open up the space to all kinds of violations. So how should we help? The Torah commands us two things: not to shut our hearts and not to shut our hands against the needy. Not to shut our heart means to be sensible towards the fate of the more vulnerable and needy ones. To listen to them, to dedicate a little bit of time to them, to become familiar with their problems, their story etc. This can be – and very often is – a good lesson for all of us, especially for all those who prosper in their lives. Whereas not to shut our hand does not have to necessarily mean financial help, it can be understood more broadly, as active help by means of the actions we undertake.
First of all we have to know the reasons why a given person has find themselves in a difficult situation, since there are no rules here, as human fates can stem from a wide spectrum of events. On one end of this spectrum there are people who found themselves in a difficult situation as a result of unfortunate events, such as the death of a close one, an accident or disaster etc.; these are people who used to function well within the society before that misfortune happened to them. On the other end of the spectrum we have people who are responsible for their own difficult situation, who never truly functioned properly among other people. In each case we should provide a different kind of help. When it comes to people who function well within the society, the necessary help is usually temporary and short-term and it doesn’t require great sacrifices on our side, we also don’t need to take special responsibility for these people. In the case of people who do not function well the situation is much more complicated. The first thing that should be done is to help them change whatever leads to their inadequate functioning, which could be caused by very different reasons, so that our aid will not lead to a situation wherein by helping them we are actually “encouraging” them to remain in a bad situation. Then, depending on the scale of the problem, we must assess the extent of responsibility that a given situation requires us to take. If this responsibility turns out to be too great for us, to the extent that it poses a threat to our life’s order, we have the right to deny that help with a clear conscience.
And since I believe that everyone deserves help (or at least a chance to receive it, since ultimately it’s true that fortune is fickle and none of us can predict the situation in which we may find ourselves in the future), before we decide to help someone, let’s always get to know the reasons why they found themselves in such a situation, let’s get to know their story. I believe it is exactly for this reason that the Torah first speaks about not shutting the heart, and only then about not shutting the hand, and not the other way around. By acting this way, in this order, we will be able to realistically assess if and in what way we can help that person, and as a consequence we’ll be able to live with a clear conscience if we decide not to help someone.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka