Preventing Dependency

"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." How many fish do we buy, and how many nets?

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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:”
helping the poor“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:

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.

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