Thursday, 01 Aug 2013

Written by Rabbi Lea Mühlstein

There Shall Be No Needy
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, presents us with a seemingly unresolvable paradox. In Deuteronomy 15 we read: “4There 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 — 5if only you heed the ETERNAL your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. … 7If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your brethren 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 brother. 8Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. …. 11For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and the needy in your land.” i

How can we resolve the apparent contradiction between v. 4, ‘There shall be no needy among you,’ and v. 11, ‘For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land’? Sifrei Deuteronomy offers the following explanation: ii  “When you perform the will of the Omnipresent, there will be needy among others but not among you. If, however, you do not perform the will of the Omnipresent, there will be needy among you.”

For the progressive Jew, this explanation is doubly troubling. Firstly, it suggests that God differentiates between Jews and gentiles on a most basic level – if we keep the commandments there shall be no needy Jews, but amongst the gentiles there will always be poor people. And secondly, the explanation asserts that poor Jews exist in this world because we fail to perform the will of God. This isn’t just simple deuteronomic reward-and-punishment theology, but actually portrays God as meting out collective punishment.

Having rejected Sifrei’s explanation, let me offer an alternative. I believe that we are supposed to read v. 4 as an aspirational statement: ‘There shall be no needy among you!’ Like the other blessings promised in Deuteronomy, v. 4 forms part of a messianic vision. But the messianic time has not yet come. So we need God’s reminder in v. 11: ‘there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.’ Even more importantly, we need to hear God’s instructions on how we should relate to the needy and the poor in our society and what our obligations towards them are. We need to be reminded that it is only if we embrace our responsibility to keep the commandment to support the poor that there will cease to be needy people amongst us – God will not take care of it for us.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the North American charity ‘Tru’ah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’, suggests that

      the overarching Jewish attitude toward the poor is best summoned up by a single word of the biblical text:        achikha (your brother). With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.iii

By telling us that the poor person is our sibling, the Torah reminds us that, like us, a poor person is made in the image of God and should be treated as such. It also prevents us from separating ourselves from him or her, from seeing ourselves as somehow inherently different from the poor.

It is important that Parashat Re’eh reminds us annually of our duty towards the poor. But I can’t help thinking that this year it is more important than ever to hear its message loud and clear. Not only do we live in times of great austerity with welfare cuts threatening those who are the neediest amongst us; but we can also observe a growingly cruel rhetoric about the claimants of welfare benefits. They become skivers and welfare scroungers, suggesting either that they are to blame for their poverty or, worse, portraying them as trying to defraud the system.iv The poor in our society are depicted in ways that encourages us to think of them as utterly different to us. In addition to what this does to the mental state of the poor, this type of rhetoric also has disastrous consequences on the mental state of the rest of us. It leads us to believe that we have nothing to do with them, which is why the message of Parashat Re’eh is so important today. Because it teaches us exactly the opposite. We have everything to do with them! They are our siblings for whom we must care.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that we have an infinite responsibility for the Other. While this might sound somewhat overwhelming it is just as much an aspirational statement as God’s promise that ‘There shall be no needy among you!’ Each of us alone might not be able to eradicate poverty but by embracing our responsibility as individuals as part of a community, of society, we can bring our world closer to the messianic vision. We can do so by giving to the poor, by donating resources or our time to food-banks and drop-ins, by informing ourselves of the facts before reaching conclusions about the rights and wrongs of benefit cuts and by making our voices heard in public. Parashat Re’eh teaches us that together we will make a difference in this world when each of us takes action, for such is God’s will – Amen.

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein


i Translation based on New JPS Tanakh (1985)
 ii As quoted by Rashi on Deuteronomy 15:4
  iiiJill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition, Jewish Lights Publishing 2010, p. 12
  ivThe picture that is painted by politicians and in the media is far removed from the facts on the ground. For example, the latest Department for Work and Pensions estimates show that in 2011/12 just 0.7 per cent of benefit expenditure was overpaid due to fraud. According to the annual analysis of UK public spending by The Guardian for 2011/12, the largest element of social security expenditure (47 per cent) goes to pensioners. Housing benefit accounts for 10 per cent (and about one fifth of these claimants are in work); 8 per cent on disability living allowance, which helps disabled people (both in and out of work) with extra costs; 2 per cent on employment and support allowance to those who cannot work due to sickness or disability; only 3 per cent of welfare spending is for jobseeker’s allowance.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.