On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - R’eih: Fighting Poverty

In life, we are often tasked with a blessing and a curse. In Parashat R’eih, we are reminded to always look at the blessings and the curses in front of us. Chapter four of Parashat R’eih, commands us, “there shall be no needy among you,” only a few verses before it tells us, “and there will never cease to be poor ones in your land.” Being deeply responsible for eradicating poverty is a fundamental commitment of our Jewish tradition, but how can one fully eradicate poverty? Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discuss what it means to accept responsibility for the hungry and poor in our midst.

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Welcome to Episode 32 of On the Other Hand: Ten 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast which is presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. So talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. And like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism. And subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. 

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, wonders from Parashat R'eih, why are there so many hungry people in a world with so much plenty, and how do we accept responsibility for the hungry and the poor that are in our midst? 

This week, we focus our attention on Parashat R'eih, the fourth Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy. R'eih literally means look, see. And in the opening of the parashah, the portion, God says, look and see. I put the blessing and the curse before you. Unless it be an abstract discussion of morality, there is, on one side, Mount Gerizim, one of the mountains in the land of Israel. On the other is Mount Ebal, Har Eival. And Mount Gerizim is green and lush. So when you look at that mount, you see blessing. Mount Ebal is bleak. It's just covered with dirt. And you see curse. 

So the portion says, look. Be reminded of the blessing and the curse. And they're always before you, so choose wisely. Choose carefully. Now of course, in our lives, the easy choices are the ones that are absolutely right versus wrong. In some ways, my teacher, Rabbi Jack Stern, a blessed memory, taught that the hardest ones are between right and right, between blessing and blessing. Those questions in life that aren't so simple, aren't so black and white. And in this week's parashah, there is a whole description of Holy Days, the sacred time of our people. And then in Chapter 15 of R'eih it is a very, very challenging definition of what we are to do in the face of poverty. 

And we know in our very politically partisan world that we can discuss and debate the best ways to respond to poverty, but no one on any side of the political spectrum can say that being deeply responsible for eradicating poverty is not a fundamental commitment of our Jewish tradition. So in the 15th chapter in verse four, the text says, “there shall be no needy among you.” It's an absolute commandment. You shall not have poor people in your midst. So that's very clear and very compelling. 

But just a few verses later in chapter 15 verse 11, it says, “and there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” So on the one hand, you must not have poor people in your land. On the other hand, the Torah says, you'll never actually completely eradicate poverty from your midst. It's very tricky to figure out, how do we live in a tradition where these two thoughts not only coexist, but they coexist in the same chapter of the same book of the Torah. 

And the great commentators weigh on that, saying, if we really follow our tradition, there won't be poor people. But there are so few times when we really, fully follow that tradition and pay attention, and have enough empathy to know not only what it feels like to be poor, but to translate that empathy into a political and religious action to shape a more just and compassionate world. 

It was a couple of years ago, there was a food stamp challenge. It was a time when there was a very, very intense discussion in the United States Congress about whether food stamps were to be continued and to be funded at the level. And a group of religious leaders were challenged to live on food stamps just for one week. So the amount we could spend on our food for the entire week was $31.50. 

I know you're listening, you're saying, oh, piece of cake. I could do that. Well, I got to tell you, to stay within the $31.50 was a tremendous planning effort. First of all, I went to three or four supermarkets to find just the very basic foods that I could eat for that week and to stay within the $31.50. I went to get some cans of beans that I was going to mix with rice, a very basic and a very nourishing food substance, and I looked at the price of the cans of beans. I wasn't going to make it. So I got the dried kind, the kind you have to cook longer. 

I'm telling you this because it took such care just to stay within those bounds. And I was traveling. I remember being in the Atlanta airport and I had my sandwich for lunch, and my flight was delayed by five hours. And I realized I'll just go in and grab something--nope. If I do that, I'll be over my $31.50. I'm telling this story, because most of us have frankly no idea of what it's like to live, and not at the very, very low form of extreme poverty, but just barely hovering at the poverty level here in North America. And what that experience did was to wake us up. Wake us up to the Torah's commandment, there shall be no needy. 

We have a responsibility to not only respond to the hungry people in our midst by caring for them, but also by changing our public policy to ask, why are there so many hungry people in a world with so much plenty? And so I did the food stamp challenge just for one week. And I have to say, every time I go into a grocery store, I don't forget how carefully and strategically I was purchasing food and rationing it for that week. Again, how do we accept responsibility for the hungry and for the poor in our midst? And if we literally do what the Torah portion says, which is look at the blessing, at the curse. 

It's not a curse for someone to be poor, it's a curse for society to have no sense of responsibility, no sense of moral outrage. That is a curse. The blessing is when we live our tradition with courage and with empathy, and when we translate that experience of a moment into a way to shape that society around us, where we together worry about a society that is too tolerant of poverty as an essential fundamental of our lives. 

So I think of Parashat R'eih. I think of sacred holidays reminding us at harvest time of our plenty, and when we have plenty, to share it. I think of the holiday that we learn in the parashah about Passover, reminding us that once we were poor people journeying in the desert. We have all these reminders, all these ways of saying, you should know better. And if you are lucky enough at this moment not to live on the edge of hunger, do not think for one moment that millions of God's children are living in that place. 

So as we debate public policy, as we debate issues of politics, let's not forget what it means to be a person of faith, what it means to be a person who takes this religious tradition seriously. We have a lot to do. We have a lot of people who count on us. So let's see Mount Gerizim. Let's see the blessing, the possibility, that reward of choosing the right good way, and as well what happens to a society, what happens to us as individuals. We make choices that impoverish us, impoverish our world, and keep us from being our best selves. Let's follow the Parashah R'eih. Let's look and see, and do what's possible. 

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today-- and we hope you did-- you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week.