The importance of caring for the poor and weak according to the Torah * The leftist theory: State and society are to blame for the situation of the poor * The Torah view: Responsibility for a person’s financial situation rests first and foremost on himself, and only when one cannot take care of himself are we obligated to assist him * The meaning of the mitzvah of Yovel (Jubilee): Natural resources should be divided equally, but an individual’s personal profits from his own hard work belongs to him * According to the Torah, concern for the weak rests first on a person’s immediate circles, and only afterwards on society * The numerous advantages of such a circular system of support and assistance
The Importance of Societal Mitzvoth
Love and care for others is the basic foundation of the Torah, as Rabbi Akiva said: “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is a great rule in the Torah” (Leviticus 19:18, Sifra, ibid). From this stems the enormous mitzvah of helping those in distress, and consequently, the mitzvah of tzedakka (charity) for the poor is one of the most important commandments in the Torah. Our Sages said: “Charity is equivalent to all the other commandments” (Bava Batra 9a) and, “Whoever turns away his eyes from one who appeals for charity is considered as if he were serving idols” (Bava Batra 10a).
Contrary to the Leftist Position
However, there is a profound difference between the Torah’s position and that of the secular leftist movements. The leftist movement’s concepts are based on the ideological foundations of communism and socialism, namely, that all property and money belongs to everyone equally. And even if they are willing to admit that the idea of communism has gone bankrupt economically, they still believe in its message, and therefore according to their view, every person has the natural right to live in relative comfort, as standard in society. If, for example, the majority of people live in apartments in major cities, every citizen has the right to demand that society makes certain that he also has an apartment there. The same goes for food, clothing, medicine, education and activities for children – it’s his right to demand that society makes sure he also has what most people have. If society fails to take care of the needs of the poor, it is guilty for their situation, and should be ashamed of it. The reason for the poor’s situation doesn’t matter – no excuse will be valid against the accusations leveled at society for having poor people in their midst. The reason for this is because, in principle, wealth belongs to everyone equally, and as long as there are people who live in relative comfort, they will be considered as oppressors of the poor and living at their expense.
The Torah’s Position
In contrast, according to the Torah’s instruction, the individual – as well as a poor person – is the first one responsible for his own financial situation. Only after one tries to take care of himself but is unable to make a living because of illness or old age, etc., only then is there an obligation to help him satisfy his needs. And even this duty is not imposed on society simultaneously; rather, it spreads from one circle to another – from the immediate family circle, to society at large.
This method is more moral, because free choice and individual responsibility are the moral foundations of man’s existence in the world – if one chooses good – he will merit a good life in this world, and in the World to Come; if he chooses evil – he will be punished in this world, and the next. This is also true in regards to money and property. If one is lazy – he will be poor, and if he is diligent – he will reap the fruits of his labor.
This method is also efficient, because it teaches a person to be responsible and hard-working, and it encourages competition promoting economic growth, which in the long run helps the poor. In addition, it is also the finest means of assisting the poor, for the highest level of charity is to help the poor stand on their own two feet, without the need of donations and benefits.
In contrast, the leftist methods never help, because they reinforce poverty and suppress the poor person’s motivation to take responsibility and advance on his own. On the other hand, by constantly raising taxes they punish the rich, the hard-workers and entrepreneurs, and hamper their attempts to continue working for economic development.
Equality in the Torah
Indeed, there is a fundamental commandment in the Torah which expresses the equality of all people – the mitzvah of Yovel (the Jubilee year). According to this commandment all land in the country is divided equally among all the people of Israel, and even a person who was forced due to poverty to sell his field, with the arrival of the Jubilee year, the land returns to him or his heirs without compensation.
It is fitting for us to learn from this commandment that just as the land should be divided equally among all, so too, all natural resources belong to all of Israel equally. This includes the air, water, minerals, gas, oil, etc. The proceeds of these resources should be spent on quality education for all. This is the foundation of equality which gives each individual the opportunity to take care of himself, according to his efforts and talent.
Indeed, natural resources should be divided equally, but the fruit of one’s hard work is his own. Alongside an individual’s privilege to work and get rich, he is commanded to help the poor; and so as not to detract from the principle of responsibility, this commandment is fulfilled by the circular system of responsibility.
The Circular Method of Responsibility in Helping the Poor
In contrast to the socialist concept in which society as a whole is equally responsible for the welfare of the poor, according to the Torah, there are parallel circles of responsibility.
Within the first circle is the poor person himself, who is initially responsible for his own situation and that of his family. Therefore, if a person was able to work but chose not to, casting himself on the public, gabbaei tzedakka (charity treasurers) would make sure he worked. Only in a situation where one worked as hard as he could, but was still unable to get by, would he be given charity, as Torah says, “You must help him pick up the load” (Deuteronomy 22:4) – to pick up the load together with him is a mitzvah, but when he shirks his own responsibility, there is no mitzvah to help him.
When a poor person is unable to take care of himself, the responsibility is shifted to his relatives (as is the rule in redeeming hereditary land that was sold). If they are unable to help their relative – the responsibility is shifted to the third circle, namely, his neighbors. And if they cannot provide all the needs of their poor nearby residents, members of the entire city must take charge, and only afterwards, the entire society, as the Torah says: ‘When, in a settlement in the land that God is giving you, any of your brothers is poor… do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7). It is also written: “When you lend money to My people, to the poor man among you…” (Exodus 22:24) – your poor [sc. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town — your poor come first (Bava Metzia 71a).
If there was a poor person who had relatives who were able to help but shirked their duty, the gabbaei tzeddaka would force them to do so, and only if they were unable to meet their poor relative’s needs, would they give him municipal public funds (S. A., Y.D. 251:4).
The Circular Method is Just, Moral and Effective
When the responsibility to provide for the poor rests on relatives and neighbors they will try their best to make him a partner in work, so he can make a living by himself and not always be a burden on them, and thus, they place him on his own two feet. But when the poor receive benefits, relatives absolve themselves from responsibility and do make enough of an effort to ensure he works and makes a living. The resulting damage is deep and extended, for in many cases, after a poor person becomes accustomed to accepting allowances and charities, he loses his dignity and ability to stand on his own; he also serves as a bad example for his children, and the odds of them escaping the cycle of poverty decrease.
According to today’s conventional method, the State is responsible for the overall handling of all poor people, and social workers are not familiar on a long-term basis with the community they handle. According to the Torah, assistance to the poor should be given by local gabbi’s who are familiar with them, because only they can help the poor in the most advantageous way. If possible, they will find him a job so he can make a living with dignity. If he is incapable of this, they will try to find him work in which he can at least make a little money, and thus maintain his dignity in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his family.
The halakha itself states that the most excellent, unparalleled type of charity is to give a person the possibility of working and earning a living by himself (Rambam, S. A., 249:6).
In addition, when the treasurers are local residents, it’s hard to fool them. This also is very important, for our Sages warned that the punishment for imposters posing as poor people in order to receive charity is that eventually they will truly be poor, and will not leave this world without having to beg for charity from others (Mishna Pe’ah 8:9). This punishment comes justly from Heaven, but in most cases, there’s no need for miraculous intervention to bring it about, because a person who is used to relying on assistance and charities, loses his ability to make a living on his own, and eventually truly becomes poor. This is the way the communist system led to poverty for nations who chose it.
Another significant advantage of the circular method is that it places responsibility on the group to take care of the poor within their midst. In the Socialist system, components of which are practiced in Israel today, the State is responsible for the welfare of all citizens, and thus, entire groups of people are created who discard responsibility for their own livelihoods, and become accustomed to relying on financial benefits. Their representatives in the Knesset constantly demand reductions in payments for education, health, property taxes, supplementary funding for municipal budgets with state funds, etc., without their leaders accepting upon themselves the responsibility of correcting the situation. This is what happens in Arab society, and to differentiate, among our brothers, the Haredim.
In a well-administered situation according to halakha, when family and close neighbors are unable to help the poor, responsibility is shifted to the municipal circle, or the community among which the poor belong. This responsibility is the key to correcting the situation, because it goads the leaders of the society to make an assessment, to examine the causes of poverty, and seek advice on how to get out of it – for example, through the training of young people in professions in which they are able to make a decent living. But when the State is responsible for the situation of all poor people alike, the public and the leaders who are part of the problem remove all responsibility from themselves, and to boot, they argue society does not help enough, and even interferes in solving the crisis.
As a result, instead of the allowances helping the poor escape the cycle of poverty, they help them maintain the lifestyle that led them to poverty, and the problem keeps on growing.
The Attitude towards Charity
The leftist method declares to the poor: “Don’t be afraid to demand what rightly belongs to you, you have it coming!” In contrast, according to the Torah, a poor person is required to thank all those who help him. Indeed, the rich have to try their best not to embarrass the poor who were forced to receive tzedakka, but there is nothing wrong with the poor person, on his own part, to conduct a self-examination, and consider whether he might also be at fault for his situation. In any event, this will motivate him to encourage his children to pursue their studies, so that later on in life, they can learn a trade and live comfortably.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.