Parashat B'har

Reaching Out To Those In Need

Numerous translators of the Bible understand differently the specifics of the command to strengthen those that are falling low, but all agree on the importance of its fulfillment.

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The Orthodox Artscroll translation and commentary sees the commandment to help in more general terms, but agrees with JPS that the point is to help people maintain their status as productive members of the community:

"If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him--proselyte or resident--so that he can live with you." (Emphasis added.)

Everett Fox, in The Schocken Bible, translates the verse in a way that implies that we must extend assistance to "our brother," the sojourner, and the resident-settler equally:

"Now when your brother sinks down (in poverty), and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him (as though) a sojourner and a resident-settler, and he is to live beside you."

This translation seems to turn around the potential ethnocentrism of the verse: just as you would help a sojourner in need, you also need to help the person close to you. It is fascinating to think that the imperative of helping someone within one's community might be derived from the classic idea of welcoming the stranger, and not vice versa.

The idea that this verse teaches equality in social ethics is made explicit by Aryeh Kaplan, in his Living Bible, an interpretive translation according to traditional Jewish sources:

"When your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you must come to his aid. Help him survive, whether he is a proselyte or a native Israelite. "

On the other hand, the New Revised Standard Version, a reliable and scholarly but not Jewish translation of the Bible, renders our verse with a somewhat different twist:

"And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you."

This is almost the opposite of the JPS translation; the interpretation here is that the consequences of becoming so poor that one needs social assistance is that one becomes like a "stranger and a sojourner," rather than keeping one's full status in the community.

One might be tempted to argue that a Christian translation could be biased towards seeing the Torah's laws as harsh and punitive, while the Jewish translations, based as they often are on traditional Torah commentary, are more oriented towards finding the maximum charity and compassion in our verse. However, at least one Jewish translation, the old Soncino Chumash, renders the verse with the same meaning as the NRSV:

"And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee, then thou shalt uphold him; as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee."

The commentators and translators disagree about the extent of our obligation to help those in need: do we give special consideration to the members of our community, or do we help all equally? (Which might spread out our resources quite thinly.) Is there an inevitable social consequence to poverty, or must we find a way to keep the poor and the well-off on exactly the same social level?

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.