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The Great Contradiction of Parashah R'eih

The Great Contradiction of Parashah R'eih

the Torah in a pink tie

In this week's Torah portion, R'eih, we read one of the most categorical words in the Bible: אפס efes, as in zero, none, bubkas, nada, not a single one. “There shall be efes needy among you…” (Deuteronomy 15:4).

But just a few sentences later (Deuteronomy 15:11) we read, “The poor shall never cease to be in the land.”

How can the Torah say one thing, and seven sentences later, say the complete opposite?

The resolution to this great contradiction lies in the conditional nature of our Covenant with God.

The Covenant has always been conditional.

When our people began, God promised Abraham and us protection, children, permanence as a people, and the land of Israel, on condition that we be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2), follow God’s teachings (Genesis 17:1), and practice and teach our children to fill the world with tzedakah u’mishpat, righteousness and justice.

Those are still the terms!

“There will be no poor or needy” if and only if all people are giving, caring, sensitive to the needs of others, and generous. But because that is not likely to happen, we who take our covenantal obligation seriously must be aware of and ready to open our hearts and our hands to the poor and needy.

It goes back to the essential question Cain Asked God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

God’s answer to us is the same as to Cain: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me...” (Genesis 4:10 -11)

Hopefully we hear and respond to those plaintive cries today: Until we become our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, the just caring and compassionate society that God called us to create will never to be more than a wistful hope.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is a former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. He currently serves Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, FL. A prolific writer, he is the author of several books, the most recent of which is …And Often the First Jew. Rabbi Fuchs earned a D. Min in Biblical Interpretation from Vanderbilt Divinity School, which, in 2017, named him its “Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.”

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
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