Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Re’eh – Contradictions

In the space of seven verses, the Torah seems to contradict itself three times. First, we are told, “There shall be no needy among you” (15:4), then “If, however, there is a needy person among you” (15:7) and finally, “The needy will never disappear from the land,” (15:11)

So, will there be needy or not, one or many, and why the confusion?

We might follow the medieval commentator Nachmanides, the Ramban, who writes that while it is theoretically possible that the poor will cease to exist, it will not happen in practice. The Torah is wise about human nature. People are given the possibility of eliminating poverty but will not ultimately do what is necessary to accomplish the goal. There should not be needy among us, because we know how to help, but there will be, because we are too indifferent and will not rouse ourselves to act. (Although humanity is making progress across the globe. According to the World Bank, in 1990, 36% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, by 2019, this number had fallen to 9.2%. That still means, however, that well over 700 million people live in extreme poverty in our world.)

Others understand the Torah to be speaking on more than an economic level. Tosefet Bracha on this verse quotes the rabbinic maxim from Pirke Avoth: “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot.”

In this instance, needy is not a purely objective or even economic circumstance. We all know people who live in grievance. Many individuals are wealthy by any objective standard yet live with a constant sense of deprivation. Nothing is ever fair, nothing is ever just – and nothing is ever enough.

This kind of need can be addressed, but it is not likely to ever disappear. If you live with a chip on your shoulder, no matter what you are given, you will find a new chip. Thus the “needy” – that is, those who feel themselves needy – will never disappear. Those who feel blessed, on the other hand, will be thankful for more without feeling cheated.

The Torah’s lesson here is the multiple levels on which to understand poverty. We have a moral obligation to deal with real poverty and to ameliorate it as best we can. Tzedakah, giving to the poor, is a central mitzvah for our tradition. Alongside the social mandate, there is a clear individual one: to elevate our attitude so that we do not live constantly dissatisfied with what we have.

The Torah’s counsel is simple, if not always easy: to be giving and to be grateful. If one day we indeed accomplished that both for ourselves and for our society, the prophecy would come to pass — “There shall be no needy among you.”