Reprinted from Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Live Today (Jewish Publication Society).
Our ancestors probably saw a good deal more poverty eye-to-eye than most of us do today, and though one might suppose that that exposure to misery would have, made them callous, it seems to have had a different effect. Helping alleviate poverty became a kind of sacred mission.
Abraham vs. Job
At times one finds in rabbinic writing about poverty a kind of passion and pathos, as if the details of the reality cannot be pushed from one’s mind:
When R. Joshua ben Levi went to Rome, he saw marble pillars there which had been carefully covered with wrappings to keep them from cracking during the heat and freezing in the cold. At the, same time, he saw a poor man who had no more than a reed mat under him and a reed mat over him to protect him from the elements.
(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 9:1)
It’s a picture that makes one think of the urban poor today, sleeping over subway grates in the richest cities in the world.
Such scenes can also push one to see poverty as a kind of irresolvable dilemma. We feel overwhelmed and overmatched by it. But one of the most noticeable aspects of rabbinic writing about tzedakah is the interest in activism that characterizes it. Look, for example, at the following text that tries to contrast Job and Abraham:
When that great calamity came upon Job, he said to the Holy One, blessed be He: "Master of the universe, did I not feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. . . ? And did I not clothe the naked?"
Nevertheless the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Job: ”Job, you have not yet reached even half the measure of Abraham. You sit and stay in your house and the wayfarers come in to you. To him who is accustomed to eat wheat bread, you give wheat bread to eat; to him who is accustomed to eat meat, you give meat to eat; to him who is accustomed to drink wine, you give wine to drink. But Abraham did not act in this way. Instead, he would go out and around everywhere, and when he found wayfarers, he brought them into his house. To him who was unaccustomed to eat wheat bread, he gave wheat bread to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to eat meat, he gave meat to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to drink wine, he gave wine to drink. And more than that, he arose and built large mansions on the highways and left food and drink there, and every passerby ate and drank and blessed Heaven. That is why delight of spirit was given to him.
(Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Chapter 7)
Job, for rabbinic literature, is a perplexing biblical character. One interpretive concern is the attempt to place Job in some kind of "historical" context, and the comparison to Abraham in the text above may result from the prevalent rabbinic conception that Job lived in the time of Abraham. Of course, even more significant is the discussion of Job’s tragic story–why was Job afflicted and what was the meaning of the biblical tale?
Our text above seems to suggest that Job’s sufferings are linked to failings of character. When he complains about his affliction to God, pointing out all the good deeds he had done in his life, God replies, in essence, "You think you’ve been good? Look at Abraham!" Thus, the text becomes a kind of double-sided coin. On the one hand, it explains Job’s "calamity" in the light of the inadequacy of his acts of tzedakah;and on the other hand it tries to elucidate true tzedakah by referring to the example of Abraham.
What characterized Abraham’s approach to tzedakah? Two qualities in particular are mentioned by the text. First, where Job sat and waited for the poor, Abraham "would go out and around everywhere," and Abraham "arose and built large mansions on the highways and left food and drink there." In other words, Abraham sought out the poor and made efforts on their behalf. Second, Abraham went beyond restoring the poor to their former state–the way that Job would feed meat to those "accustomed to eat meat," etc. Abraham would improve their lot over what it was before: "To him who was unaccustomed to eat wheat bread, he gave wheat bread to eat," and so forth.
It is a remarkable portrait of a man of tzedakah. But there is something troubling here, for the text cannot help but leave the reader with an uneasy feeling too. To blame Job’s sufferings on a lack of charity seems too harsh. It is not as if the text claims that Job ignored .the suffering of the poor; if that were the case, we might understand his afflictions as punishment. But instead he is shown to be one who reacted to them with compassion. His only failing was in not being Abraham! Job in this text becomes a kind of literary foil that enables the rabbinic interpreters a chance to point up the accomplishments of Abraham. Yet it is clear that Abraham, as presented here, belongs to another category entirely. He has gone beyond the law, lifnim mishurat ha-din, as it is called in the rabbinic texts, and no one can be held to the standards of saints. .Indeed, if we look at a later Jewish text for illumination here, we can see that Maimonides, in delineating the requirements for giving tzedakah, seems to require precisely the level of piety exemplified by Job, as portrayed in the midrash above! It was Job who, according to the midrash, helped people return to what they were "accustomed," exactly what Maimonides expects all of us to do:
You are commanded to give the poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothing, he should be clothed. If he has no house furnishings, they should be bought for him. If he has no wife, he should be helped to marry. If it is a woman, she should be given in marriage. Even if it had been his custom to ride a horse with a manservant running in front of him, and he has now become poor and has lost his possessions, one must buy him a horse to ride and a manservant to run before him, as it is said "Sufficient for whatever he needs" (Deuteronomy 15:8). You are obligated to fill his want; you are not, however, obligated to restore his wealth.
(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 7:3)
But despite the extraordinary–extralegal, one can say–nature of Abraham’s example, it seems nonetheless to be a model of behavior that has something powerful to say to us today. To begin with, that quality of activism, of going to seek out those who are in need, is something that seems particularly appropriate to a time in which our connection to the downtrodden of society tends to be so passive: We receive solicitations for tzedakah through computerized mailing lists, and the realities of middleclass American life rarely present the poor on our doorstep (and when they do, we find it a terrifying aberration). For us, taking on that same activist challenge–Abraham’s commitment to "to go out and around everywhere" would be a statement of concern that we might do well to emulate.
And it also seems right to consider the implications of Abraham’s standard of action: "To him who was unaccustomed to eat wheat bread, he gave wheat bread to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to eat meat, he gave meat to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to drink wine, he gave wine to drink." Job fed the poor at the level to which they were accustomed. But what do we do in the case of the poor who have fallen not from a comfortable state into poverty, but who have never gone without hunger, who have never had what they need? As Maimonides reminds us, we are not talking about making the poor wealthy; we are simply trying to do tzedakah in the literal sense of the word, that which is just–"You are obligated to fill his want." And that means a level of commitment–personal and national–which says that none of us should feel satisfied if there are any around us who are not satisfied.