Even though the Jewish sages of old declare in the midrash that “he who is crushed by poverty is as one subject to all the afflictions of the world” (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus, 31:12); poverty is not only a challenge, but an opportunity – especially for those with the means to assist in its alleviation.
At the heart of the challenge of poverty is not only human responsibility to ensure the wise and moral distribution of resources (versus a culture of entitlement), but above all the imperative of human solidarity itself. And even this imperative, from a religious perspective, serves an even higher goal.
One of the most powerful Rabbinic homilies in this regard is based on the second verse of Psalm 65, “Let the Lord arise and scatter his enemies and let those that hate Him flee from before him”. Say the sages “Five times (in the book of Psalms) David calls on God to arise and scatter his enemies. Yet we do not find (in the book of Psalms any mention) that the Lord rises up (in response). When does He (declare that He will) arise? (It is stated in Psalm 12 v. 6), ‘For the oppression of the poor and the cry of the needy, then will I arise says the Lord’!”
In this dramatic homily, the Rabbis of the midrash teach us that even if one is King David himself, one may not assume that God is on your side.
In similar vein Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have replied to a question as to whether God was on his side, that what is important is whether we are on God’s side!
We are on God’s side, declares the midrash, when we care for the poor and the needy!
This of course is in keeping with the fundamental Jewish teaching of “Imitatio Dei” (based on Leviticus 19 v. 1. “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am Holy” ); and as the sage Abba Shaul puts it, “Just as He is compassionate and gracious, so must you be compassionate and gracious (see also Maimonides, Yad, ‘Gifts to the Needy’ 7:6).
We are only truly godly in our behavior – the way the Lord calls us to be – when we respond to the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.
The Bible lays down the precise precept as follows:-
“If, there is a needy person among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him, sufficient for whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbor the base thought…so that you are miserly towards your needy kinsman and give him nothing and he cries out to the Lord against you and you have sinned. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so …the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy people in your land, which is why I command you; open your hand to the poor and needy kinsmen in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
In fact the Hebrew word for charity is “tzedakah”, which literally means “righteousness”. Caring for and giving to the poor is our righteous obligation, responsibility and duty. Thereby we affirm the bonds of our common humanity that bind us together: thereby we promote peace in society. The Hebrew word “shalem” meaning complete and united is the root of the word “shalom”, peace. It is through practical response to the needs of the other that we promote that unity and harmony that is the essence of true peace and redemption for society (see Maimonides, Ibid).
Precisely because our responsibility to care for the poor and eradicate poverty is meant to be the expression of human solidarity, the manner in which we act is of significance both when we provide materially and even when we are unable to.
Maimonides (Yad, Gifts to the Needy, 10: 4-5) summarizes this as follows:-
If a poor man requests money from you and you have nothing to give him, speak to him consolingly. It is forbidden to upbraid a poor person or to shout at him, because his heart is broken and contrite, as it is said, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:19). And it is written, “To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:10).
Woe to him who shames a poor man. Rather one should be as a father to the poor, both in compassion and speech, as it is said, “I am a father to the poor” (Job 29:15).
Moreover whosoever gives charity to a poor man ill-manneredly and with a downcast look, has lost all the merit of his actions even though he should give him a thousand gold pieces; rather, he should give with good grace and with joy.
He should speak to him words of consolation and sympathy, as it is said, “And I gladdened the heart of the widow” (Job 29:13).
Beyond our responsibility to respond to immediate needs of the poor, we are obliged to work for the eradication of poverty. However the most virtuous and praiseworthy response is that which facilitates the fullest expression of the dignity of the needy by allowing the latter to become self-sufficient.
The Talmud designates eight levels of response - one higher than the other - from the least worthy, which is to give reluctantly or with regret. But the highest level (based on Leviticus 23:25) is to enable persons to exit from poverty through gift, loan, partnership, or by finding employment.
Maimonides (loc. cit.) in codifying this Talmudic text, clarifies that this highest level of response “ means to support them in such a manner that falling into poverty is prevented” Or as the Chinese proverb goes:- "Give a man a fish, and you have fed him once. Teach him how to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime."
However a Hassidic Master was wont to say that in fact the poor perform a service for the wealthy, in that they enable the latter to perform the religious obligation of “tzedakah” – the abovementioned righteous duties towards the needy. This highlights the teleology, the higher goal in combatting poverty. It is not simply the elimination of human hardship and suffering, as important as that is. It is - as mentioned - the actualization of human solidarity. It facilitates the practical expression of compassion, of connectedness, of the human interaction which overcomes human alienation.
For indeed, as the prophet Isaiah declares; Redemption will be brought by “mishpat utzedaka” , justice and righteousness in our world.