What do you do when you are a young mother and your entire income does not cover the costs of your childcare so that you can work? What do you do if your Meals on Wheels program has to prioritize its clients because it has faced cutbacks and you are no longer eligible for the delivered meal, even if you can’t shop and cook anymore, and would benefit from someone stopping by your house regularly? What do you do if your Cal Fresh vouchers, only $1.20 per meal per member of your family, are cut further? Who in your family won’t eat tomorrow?
Re’ah, this week’s torah portion, midway through Devarim, has one of the clearest sets of instruction about what we are supposed to do when people like this live in our community. It tells us exactly what is essential in a just, Godly society:
Devarim 15:7 If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that YHWH your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend your family sufficient for whatever they need. 9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kin and give them nothing. They will cry out to YHWH against you, and you will incur guilt. 10 Give to them readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return YHWH your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.
It is our responsibility to help the needy in our community. Period. The fact that we must soften our hearts and open our hands is a requirement, a commandment, and mitzvah.
At the same time, Rashi comments, in verse 8, that the idea that we must “lend” to our family rather than give as a gift, because we want to preserve the dignity of both the giver and receiver. Many people do not want to accept alms, even when they need them, because they do not want to seem unable to provide for themselves or their families. We know people in our community who lost a great deal when the economy went off the cliff in 2008, and rather than admit it, they shied away from their friends. Rashi, and the Talmud sages, remind us that we must preserve dignity at the same time we are helping with financial survival.
But we keep coming back to the statement that we must not harden our hearts, like Pharaoh, and we must open our hands. That’s our responsibility as members of a holy community, of people who are asked to act Godly.
In recent times, we have empowered our government to help us provide for the needy throughout our land. With a range of programs that have helped to lift people out of poverty—from Head Start to Medi-Cal/Medicaid to Section 8 Housing to the Department of Rehabilitation to SNAP/Food Stamps, to the Free Lunch Program, these programs have often helped families in stop gap measures and in training so that they could learn to be completely self-sufficient. Within Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah, that lays out the steps to higher and higher spiritual levels in helping, we move from giving to an individual grudgingly to giving anonymously to helping someone learn to support him or herself, the highest level of assistance. These and other government programs relate to many of Maimonides’ steps, including helping people become self-sufficient.
As the government has chosen to cut back on programs, the poor have been hit disproportionately hard: our government, our surrogate, has chosen to harden its heart to the needy in the community. As a result, the well-meaning local organizations that provide Head Start and Section 8, etc., have had to make very hard choices: to close programs, to limit recipients. Hobson-like choices have been made: to cause many people some pain or a few people a lot of pain, serving seniors or people with disabilities or people in extreme poverty. How do well-meaning people make these choices?
Some in government claim that it’s not their job–it’s our job in congregations throughout the country to care for the needy. Yes, we have a positive obligation. And, yet, according to the website Bread for the World, “In practical terms, every faith congregation in the United States—which has more than 330,000 Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish congregations—would have to raise an additional $50,000 every year for 10 years to make up for these cuts.”
Some in our congregation are concerned that such talk is too political, not meant for the bima. I respond, with all due respect: our texts tell us over and over again, especially in this week’s parasha, that our responsibility is to care for the needy. And I believe that budgets are supremely moral documents, telling us explicitly what our values and priorities are. We shall surely not harden our hearts. We shall surely open our hands to the needy among us. Our budgets should reflect that.
Through my discretionary fund, we support the Esperanza Fund, our local emergency fund for community members in need, while also providing them an advocate to help them avoid the emergency in the future (if possible). Through our holiday food and clothing program, we help people in the community celebrate their holy day. Through our High Holy Day food drive, we support Project MANA in its work to feed the hungry in North Tahoe.
But that doesn’t mean we are excused from other means to help the needy. To have a fair, just community, to act Godly, it’s up to us to find every path we can—even engaging in the political process to tell our elected officials what our bible tells us represents justice, even advocating for a fair Farm Bill, even figuring out ways to alleviate the effects of government cutbacks in our community. We shall surely soften our hearts and open our hands.
 Raising Our Voices Louder This Fall, Fall 2012. http://www.bread.org/what-we-do/resources/newsletter/july-august-2012/raising-our-voices-louder.html. Accessed 8/3/13.