Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Torah Connection - Re'eh

Woo-hoo, finally caught up to yesterday's reading! This parsha continues to hold the sticks and carrots of divine justice, focusing mostly on avoiding idolatry, but also interpersonal relationships.

One important relationship is how a society treats its poor.   Interestingly, this parsha says the following about the poor:

First, in Deuteronomy 15:4-5:

ד  אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן-לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.4 Howbeit there shall be no needy among you--for the LORD will surely bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it--
ה  רַק אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.5 if only thou diligently hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all this commandment which I command thee this day.

And yet, only 2 verses later, we read:

ז  כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ, בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ--לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן.7 If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother;
ח  כִּי-פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.8 but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth.
Finally concluding,

יא  כִּי לֹא-יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן, מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ; עַל-כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר, פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ, בְּאַרְצֶךָ.11 For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying: 'Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land.' 

First, we are promised that if only we follow the commandments, there will be no poor people.  Then we are told that actually, there might be poor people sometimes, and that we must take care of them.  Finally, it is admitted that there will always be poor people, no matter what.

Perhaps the key is the word used, אֶבְיוֹן (evyon).  This word is not the common word for "poor person", which is עֲנִי (ani). We use this literary term on Purim. עֲנִי is related to the word for "humble", and refers to material poverty. אֶבְיוֹן is translated as "needy", and is related to the word for "desire".  The word conjures a more desperate state of poverty than עֲנִי  but that might be more related to the state of mind of the אֶבְיוֹן than his actual means.

It is interesting, then, that the first two excerpts above refer only to אֶבְיוֹן and not to עֲנִי, while the last excerpt includes both.  Economic cycles rise and fall, and people may find themselves objectively poor, without considering themselves needy. Understood in this context, the three excerpts offer this understanding of poverty:

1. If you follow the commandments and pay attention to the divine, you will be aware of your blessings, and thus will never view yourself as needy - אֶבְיוֹן.

2. If you see a person in need, be it a brother or just someone in your community, do not hold back from helping him. The emotional distress of the אֶבְיוֹן is real, and can hold him back from recovering from poverty. Verse 8 specifically says that we are to fulfill the "need which is wanted":
דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ
It is not for us to judge them and say, "you don't really need that, you're just whining". No, the need is real even in this case. And "hardening thy heart" is the wrong response to human suffering!

3. There will always be people who feel needy, even in the richest societies. The poorest people in the U.S. live far better than average folks in the third world.  "Welfare queens" live in homes with indoor plumbing, electricity, television, and cellphones.  This fact should not prevent us from helping them.  We are commanded to help the poor, not to judge them.  It is in this excerpt that the עֲנִי is included.  This is to remind us that it is very hard from the outside to judge the person's need.  Most evyonim are legitimately poor, and many poor are too embarrassed to seek help. So this commandment reminds us, once again, to give abundantly (פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ) to the poor of all sorts.


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