Our ancestors thought in microeconomic terms, while we are accustomed to looking at larger, macroeconomic and even global trends in pay, employment and welfare. Still, all poverty is ultimately local. What can Jewish sources teach us about balancing the need for immediate relief of poverty-induced distress with the need to eliminate the root causes of poverty?
“Now when your brother sinks down (in poverty) and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him as a sojourner and resident-settler, and he is to live beside you.” (Leviticus 25:35)
Rashi, the classic eleventh-century Bible commentator from Northern France, quotes an early parable from the midrashic book Sifra to explain this phrase “You shall strengthen him:”
“Do not leave him alone so that he descend and fall, for it will be hard to raise him up. Rather, support him from the time his hand slips. To what might this be compared? To a burden on a donkey. While it is still on the donkey, one person can grab it and set it straight. But if it falls to the ground, even five people cannot put it back on.”
Rashi’s point seems obvious. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” But when the need for cure–that is, immediate assistance for people who are destitute–is so great, where do we find the funds for prevention?
Jewish Law Guides Us in Setting Priorities for Allocations
This basic question, how should we allocate limited resources, informs all of the Jewish discussion of social justice and righteous giving. And in many ways, Jewish law provides guidance about prioritizing that allocation. We take care of family and relatives before we take care of strangers, local people precede people in other cities, Jews precede non-Jews. But with respect to allocating between the short-term needs of those who are in the most desperate circumstances and the long-term needs of establishing systems and safety nets to help prevent people falling into destitution, Jewish tradition is fairly ambiguous.
While the same priority lists also indicate that the one in greater need takes precedence over the one whose needs are less serious, texts like the parable from the Sifra demand attention. In spite of the competing needs of the desperately poor, Maimonides emphasized the importance of “preventive tzedakah” by designating it as the highest of his eight levels of righteous giving:
“The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment–in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid. With reference to such aid, it is said, ‘You shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you’ (Leviticus 25:35), which means strengthen him in such a manner that his falling into want is prevented.”
Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7
It is clear from the reference to Leviticus 25:35 that Maimonides is thinking about the parable of steadying the burden on the donkey before it falls off. At the same time, Maimonides implicitly acknowledges the inherent tension in preventive tzedakah by making this approach only one of the eight levels. All of the other seven levels apparently deal with direct aid to those in current need.
Preventive Tzedakah: No Sure Payoff
The issue of limited resources is, however, not the only serious challenge to engaging in preventive tzedakah. Preventive tzedakah — that is, allocating resources in order to prevent someone becoming destitute, in order to avert dependency, in order to solve a problem before it becomes too great — is risky. Investing in training programs or in medical research sounds like a great idea, but frequently the investments yield no real benefit. Preventive tzedakah means acting without any assurance that one’s resources are doing anything truly useful.
And yet, there is still another problem with preventive tzedakah that dwarfs either of the other two. Although we are enjoined to meet the needs of the poor, we are also told that giving 10% is an average contribution and that 20% is the upper limit for giving (except for the extremely wealthy and for gifts from one’s estate). There is, in the end, a limit to one’s responsibility. But with preventive tzedakah, how is one ever able to set limits to one’s responsibility?
Maimonides talks about job creation, but training must precede a job. General education precedes training. And a child who is unhealthy cannot learn, so pediatric health care is also a basic form of prevention. At every step, we can imagine how greater resources might make the next step more effective and more cost effective. Some countries, such as Sweden, seem to maintain this kind of long-term vision, but most countries, sadly do not. How can a society learn to allocate resources for both the short term and the long term?
How Can We Focus on Long-term Solutions?
Rabbinic commentary on a strange passage in Deuteronomy may provide some direction.
“If… a corpse is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an overflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. …Then the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” (Deuteronomy 21:1-4, 6-7)
How can a society deal with unexplained death? In our society, we make a tremendous effort to find the guilty party. But in Biblical society, the response was different. Although the elders proclaim that they “did not shed this blood,” it is clear that the community felt some guilt; otherwise, why would there be such an elaborate ritual for expiating the sin? The Mishnah, the first document of rabbinic law, explains the nature of the community’s guilt:
“The elders of that city wash their hands in the place of the breaking of the neck of the cow and say: Our hands have not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see. Would it ever occur to us that the elders of the court were murderers? Rather, [they are saying:] ‘he did not come to us, and we let him go without food; we did not see and we let him go without accompaniment.'” (Mishnah Sotah 9:6)
Leaders Must Accept Blame for Omissions
Rather than escape from responsibility or blaming the death on someone else, the elders of the town are commanded to acknowledge their own share of the guilt through their own acts of omission. “We let him go without food…we let him go without accompaniment.” Later commentators explain that leaders of the town might have been negligent both with respect to the murderer and with the victim. The one who was let go without food was driven to kill out of his desperate hunger, and the one who traveled without accompaniment was slain. Responsible leadership looks for the opportunities to intervene in order to prevent tragedy.
The parable of the load of the donkey presents a practical motivation for preventive tzedakah — help before the burden becomes too great to bear. The law of the beheaded heifer presents an ethical motivation — ultimately, the consequences of failure to prevent people from falling into desperate situations are the responsibility of the community as a whole.
The challenges of preventive tzedakah are great. Three present themselves right away: How can one balance between the immediate and the long-term need? How can one dedicate resources to “preventions” that may not prevent anything? How can one set any kind of limit on the needs of prevention?
The Heifer Ritual–Where the Buck Stopped?
And this case of the beheaded heifer illustrates a fourth challenge. Immediate needs are usually apparent, and the needy will often ask an individual for help. That person is immediately obligated to provide what s/he can. Where is the address, who has the accountability for preventive tzedakah? According to the Mishnah’s reading of Deuteronomy, the elders took responsibility, but in truth, Deuteronomy has the elders claiming their innocence.
With all of these challenges standing against engaging in preventive tzedakah, and with the ongoing needs of the desperately poor, how will a society ever bring itself to take a long-term view of the plight of the most vulnerable?
Isaac Abarbanel, the fifteenth century Spanish-born Bible commentator, points out that this is the reason for the elaborate ritual of the beheaded heifer:
“All of the details of this commandment come to make the matter known, as though the act announces and testifies that they [the citizens of the town] are all suspect…. The act will arouse attention and hint at the great punishment which will come to the city because of the murder…. and this is cast upon the judges and the city elders because the lack of justice among them led to the bloodshed.”
Occasionally, we need to focus on the horrific consequences of indifference and inaction. The bizarre ritual served the ancient world as the mass media does today. By highlighting a particular tragedy, society is sometimes spurred to action.
The Talmud also relates, however, that when murders increased, the ritual of the beheaded heifer ceased.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.