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Reprinted with permission from There Shall Be No Needy, published by Jewish Lights Publishing.
The overarching Jewish attitude toward the poor is best summed up by a single word of the biblical text: achikha (your brother). With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.
The concept of human dignity is well-ingrained in Judaism. The book of Genesis describes human beings as created “b’tzelem elokim” in the image of God (1:26). At least one early Rabbi considers one of the verses expressing this idea to be the most important verse in the Torah (Sifra K’dosbim 2:4). The insistence that human beings are creations in the divine image implies that any insult to an individual, by extension, is an affront to God. In reminding us that the poor person is our sibling, the Torah emphasizes that, like us, this person is a manifestation of the divine image and should be treated as such.
In addition to challenging us to see the poor person as a member of our family, the word achikha also disabuses us of any pretense that we are somehow inherently different from the poor. Those of us who do not live in dire poverty often protect ourselves from any sense of vulnerability by finding ways to differentiate ourselves from the poor: they must be poor because they don’t work hard, because they drink or take drugs, because they come from dysfunctional families, and so forth. Seeing each poor person as our sibling cuts through any attempts to separate ourselves from him or her.
Three Reasons for Good Deeds
In a riff on the Deuteronomy 15 passage, Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th-century Spanish commentator, identifies three primary reasons for giving tzedakah: to express mercy on the poor; to recognize the poor person as your relative; and to commit to sustaining your community. With this list, Abravanel proposes a three-pronged approach to interacting with the poor.
First, you may care for the poor out of pity. The word “mercy” suggests a stance toward the poor in which you give out of a sense of generosity, and not out of a belief that the poor person deserves the gift. Similarly, when Jews pray for divine mercy, the liturgy reflects the hope that God will have mercy even though we have done nothing to deserve God’s beneficence. In the words of the High Holiday liturgy, “Avinu Malkenu (our father, our king), have mercy on us and answer us, even though we have done no good deeds.”
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