Connect with the Poor, Connect with God, Connect God to Israel

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Re’eh

A Muddled Presentation of the Obligation of Charity

Chapter fifteen of Devarim speaks of the poor twice in just a few verses, verse four promising there will be no poor among us in the land Hashem gives us, verse eleven saying there will never stop being poor. Sifrei Re’eh 132 explained the basic contradiction, verse four was addressing a time when the Jewish people follow God’s Will, the reason the next verse says as long as we hearken to God’s Voice, making it a condition.

Still, why would the later verse say there will always be poor? Kli Yakar chafes at the Torah saying the condition of Jews not following God’s Will will never cease?

He has more questions, too. The verse continues “because of that,” Hashem commands us to give to the poor in our land. It seems redundant, because obviously, we only have to give if there are poor. More, why is the Torah linking a personal obligation like charity to the land? Finally, verse eleven first speaks of poor in the land, sounding like the world in general, but closes with an adjuration to open our hands to the poor in our land. The connection between poor and sin answers too few of these issues; time for Kli Yakar to go to work.

Charity in a Zionistic Mode

He says the Torah is definitely letting us know to give precedence to the poor of Israel over those of outside Israel, and is discussing when the Jewish people are fulfilling the Divine Will [I stressed the definitely because I think confidence in a commentator calls for our attention; in a world of seventy faces to Torah, when a great Torah scholar says this is what it means, I always wonder what he meant.] He also points out the Torah repeats the word “one” (from one of your brethren in one of your gates), in his view to stress the paucity of poor people we will need to help, should we all obey God.

The never-ending poor will only be outside of Israel, who will always not be fulfilling the Divine Will, since they chose not to move to Israel with their brethren, such as in the time of Ezra, when the majority of Jews opted to stay in Bavel. [I can’t make too much of one comment, but he sure seems to be saying, in the early 1600s, that aliyah was an option already.]

When the verse speaks of poor from other lands as opposed to our land, he suggests all the lands in question are outside of Israel, since, in Israel, there won’t be poor, considering they are fulfilling God’s Will. That’s where our verse wants us to know we should give first to local poor. For him, the verse is saying: “Seeing as how there will never cease being poor outside of Israel, you have to make sure not to deny charity to your local poor.”

The verse says “therefore, I am commanding you lemor,” which I think we generally take to mean that God is saying. Kli Yakar instead thinks Hashem is telling us to say, a hint at an idea in Baba Batra 9b, encouraging the poor can be more valuable (and earn more divine blessing) than just giving the money. Or, others say, that we are supposed to speak to others about tzedaka, find ways to bring them to give.

More points about tzedaka than we might have noticed, in Kli Yakar’s rendering. We are being told Israel will have vanishingly few poor when the people fulfill God’s Will (one in a city, one from a family clan), but outside Israel there always will be the regular amount or more, because those people will always be deficient in their obedience to God, if only in their refusal to move to Israel. Among those outside people, we might have thought all poor were equal, so the verse lets us know local poor come first, deserving our verbal encouragement as well as financial. A rich reaping from just a few verses about charity.

Rejecting a False Prophet For Our Love of God

The beginning of chapter thirteen of Devarim warns us about false prophets. Even should a prophet provide a sign or wonder to support a claim we should worship powers other than God, we must not. Verse four forbids us from heeding the false prophet’s words, says God is testing whether we love God will all our hearts and might. Those of us who are not Chatam Sofer might read the last phrase as just a way of saying that love of God means we will follow the Torah, not fall prey to a false prophet, no matter how charismatic, no matter how much s/he gives us everything we wanted.

If we were Chatam Sofer, we would instead point out that a woman in love with her husband will refuse to have an affair even if her husband allows or requires it of her. [There’s a Seinfeld like that, I think, where a husband asks his wife to sleep with Jerry, who does not realize. She can’t do it, because she loves her husband.] Although it’s not a betrayal, as he asked or demanded it, she won’t do it. Here, too, says Chatam Sofer: Hashem will allow the false prophet a successful miracle to test our emotional connection to Hashem. The miracle will seem to say God is giving us permission, perhaps commanding us to worship this other power. More than just refuse, Chatam Sofer understands the verse to be telling us to be unable to, out of our love of God.

[He doesn’t quite, but he comes close to saying we are supposed to refuse to commit avodah zarah even if God actually commanded it. I think we have been guaranteed Hashem will never do that, so it’s academic, but it seems to me quite daring, especially because it might mean the prophet isn’t false, is the vehicle of God’s test.]

Idolatry Contradicts Sacrifices

The claim of Ha’amek Davar in 12;2 interests me on its own and coincides with other issues I’ve been considering recently. He says the Torah puts a reminder to destroy all the Canaanites’ places of worship before it gets to the main topic of the chapter, sacrifices, because the presence of their idolatries hinders the efficacy of our sacrificial worship to God. If Israel still has places of worship of other powers, they remove or reduce the Divine Presence in Israel, making the sacrifices—aimed at the opposite, enhancing the Divine Presence in the Land—less able to perform their function.

The Torah has already warned us of the damage of such alien worship in 7;5, says Ha’amek Davar, but repeats it here to include places we might not yet have conquered. Our verse tells us we must cleanse those places, too. He sounds like he thinks it is all or nothing, sacrifices work or don’t, but I think he must have meant it less absolutely. First, because we know there was idolatry during much of the First Temple period, as prophets attest.

[For years, I would have stopped there, but over time I have become more sensitized to Yehoshu’a 24;14 “…remove the gods your forefathers worshipped on the other side of the rive and in Egypt,” a phrase I think means the Jews still had idols with them they had had in Egypt, here, at the end of Yehoshu’a’s life. Radak concurs, and sends us to Yechezkel 20, I think verses 7-8, where Hashem says He called for the Jews to set aside their other worships in Egypt, so Hashem could redeem them, and they refused. It suggests, and I know it is radical, but I think these are simple verses in Tanakh, that Jews never fully separated from worshipping powers other than God. We are not told numbers or percentages, but there is the sense that throughout the forty years in the desert, some Jews still had idols, for Yehoshu’a to call to relinquish.]

This isn’t the place to consider that reality in full, just to say Ha’amek Davar can easily be right about all he says, with the nuance that idolatry doesn’t stop the sacrifices from their effect, it hinders or hurts it.

Our connection to God figures in all three of this week’s comments, such connection reducing the number of poor in any locality, although Jews outside of Israel will always have some poor, since they inherently arent’ fully obeying God. Our love of God should mean we could never worship any other power, even at God’s behest, says Chatam Sofer, and any such worship gets in the way of our success at war and the success of our sacrificial service, says Netziv. Only connect.

About Gidon Rothstein

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