The Activism of Abraham

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

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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.

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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.