The season of annual communal giving is now upon us, and apropos, the section from the Torah (the five books of Moses) that is being read in synagogues throughout the world this morning contains one of our world’s great realities.
In it, Deuteronomy 15:11 clearly states that “the poor shall never cease out of the land,” and Jesus in his ministry generations later reflects this ongoing Jewish and human truth when in the gospel accounts he states that “the poor you will always have with you.”
Despite our best efforts at eradication, poverty is and has always been an ongoing reality of our human species and condition, and in every generation, there are — inevitably it seems — poor and indigent people among us who need our charitable attention, concern and support.
Long ago, the Roman tyrant Rufus attempted to discredit the renown Rabbi Akiva’s belief in God altogether by posing to him the question: “If God loves the poor so much as you say, then why doesn’t God just take care of them himself?”
Rabbi Akiva rather quickly replied, “God purposely does not take care of the poor in order that people like you and me might perform righteous deeds and charitable acts on their behalf that will merit for each of us eternal life in the world to come.”
So in every generation, according to God’s unfathomable plan, the ultimate welfare and fate of those less fortunate than ourselves depends largely on you and me and the charitable support that we are able to provide.
The Deuteronomic verse itself continues: “Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother in thy land,” and in kind, Jewish tradition throughout the millenia has deemed the duty of charitable giving as equal in importance to all of God’s other commandments combined.
Judaism maintains that just as God made garments of skin to clothe Adam and Eve, we, too, are obliged to follow that example and provide clothes for the naked.
It requires that just as God visited Abraham and Sarah in their time of need for healing, so too we are obligated to visit and care for the sick.
It mandates that just as God buried Moses, so too we are obliged to bury the dead with respect and dignity.
And just as God comforted Isaac after his father Abraham passed on, Judaism teaches that we are charged to comfort those who are in mourning.
The rabbis further taught that just as each and every thread unites with others to form a much larger garment, and just as each and every metal link joins with others to form a much larger chainmail of armor, so, too, do your and my individual acts of kindness and charity join together into a communal act of charitable giving that is greater in sum than its individual parts.
In short, Judaism maintains that those of us who are gracious to those less fortunate are actually lending our resources back to the Lord, and that if you and I never turn our backs on them, God will not turn his back on any of us, either.
Larry Schlesinger, is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Beth Israel.