Asking the Clergy: Why (or how) are the faithful called to help the poor?

Rabbi Ben Herman Jericho Jewish Center

The Torah contains numerous verses on our duties toward the poor. As the Torah teaches, “If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within your gates, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother.” (Deuteronomy 15:7) How is this done? Through working at soup kitchens to ensure that people have food, through working at homeless shelters to ensure they have a place to sleep and (most importantly) working to eradicate poverty.

The ideal state is a few verses before this one: “There shall be no needy among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) The reason given for this can be problematic: “For God will surely bless you in the land which God gives to you as an inheritance as long as you observe and do all the commandments that I command you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:5) As there is no shortage of poor people in our midst, does that mean they (or we) are being punished for forsaking the commandments? Rather than examine from that perspective, I prefer the approach of what we can do, moment by moment and day by day, to create a world in which there will be no poor people. One must also note the myriad times in which the Torah asks us to help “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” imploring us to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We are implored to remember when we ourselves were vulnerable and exploited, most notably as slaves in Egypt (mentioned 36 times in the Torah) and thus must ensure that we protect those who are vulnerable and in need today.

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