The Activism of Abraham

The lives of Abraham and Job provide us with two models for confronting poverty.

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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?           

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Barry W. Holtz

Barry W. Holtz is the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He was, for twelve years, co-director of the Seminary's Melton Research Center.? His books include: Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Text,Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Live Today,and Textual Knowledge.