Friday, May 19, 2017

A Jewish Ethos for helping the poor: A hand out vs a helping hand?

I stood on the porch at a dedication ceremony of a brand new Habitat for Humanity House. The recipients were a mother and two daughters. She works full time at Publics on Hilton Head. People like myself offered prayers and gave brief remarks. One individual, a well known leader in the business community, spoke and remarked; ‘This kind of project is an example of a hand up rather than a hand out.’

Truthfully I cringed as I stood by respectfully.  Implicit biases about the poor underlie his comments. The idea that only a hand up is valid and that a hand out is wrong is a part of the American ethos. 
I subscribe to the principle that helping the poor is a hand up even though it may come as a grant. No doubt that poor people game the system just as rich people and institutions, for example, commit medicare fraud. Yet, Judaism tells us that helping the poor is a central ethic of our religious system.

I address this subject tonight as a prelude to tomorrow morning’s hot topics discussion entitled: “A Hand Up Rather than a Handout: What should be a Jewish ethos for helping the poor.” This Shabbat we have two Torah portions Behar-Behukotai which take us to the end of our reading from the book of Leviticus. Is there one idea about helping the poor or are there differing opinions concerning the extent of our obligation to help the poor?

 At least in theory the Torah tells us to help “your brother who is poor.” In Leviticus it is referring to Jews who cannot support themselves and who will become indentured to other Israelites. The  texts say, “strengthen him (the poor).”
Our beloved commentator Rashi clarifies by saying, “Don’t let him fall and become impoverished so that it will be hard for him to recover, but, to strengthen him the moment his “hand faileth.” Rashi compares this moral principle to a parable of a burden on an ass’s back.  While it is still on the ass, one man can get a hold of it and right it.  But once it has fallen to the ground, five men cannot lift it up.” The upshot is help him out now while we can do something about or let him starve and the burden on us or society is that much harder to lift him up.

On the other hand in the prophets, the Haphtarah for this week, which comes from Jeremiah, saying, “Cursed is the person who trusts in human beings
who makes flesh his arm,
and whose heart departs from the Eternal One,
and whose trust the Eternal One is.” (17:5-7) 
Commentating on the passage by Jeremiah, the great Moses Maimonides says, “A person should make himself suffer rather than making himself a charge on the public charity.” “The greatest sages in the world were hewers of wood, porters, drawers of water for gardens, smiths, and charcoal burners and never begged for charity nor accepted it when offered.” In other words they trusted in themselves for sustenance and God for faith.
 Maimonides is talking several  kinds of persons who take advantage of their being poor, even one who refuses help even though he is poor especially one who trusts in God only and not in man.

Maimonides wants to find a balance between self help and trust in God, between human industry and the belief that everything belongs to God. Maimonides is saying that we cannot loose the idea that all resources belong to God and we cannot forget that human self reliance is important. So if one is poor then ideally we have a duty to help them, yet, each of us has a duty ourselves to not depend to heavily on human beings or God as the source of taking care of our physical needs.
This is a relevant message particularly in Israel today related to that society’s problem in which Israelis want the ultra Orthodox hasidic Jews to resolve. Many in Israel resent that ultra black hat Hasidic Jews feel that their duty and job is to study Torah and that God will provide.That means the state will provide welfare so that they do not have to work. Needless to say this problem has vexed many Israelis who pay notoriously high taxes so that Hasidic Jews can study Torah while the rest of the people fight and defend the nation.
This issue also speaks to us in America and our obligation as a society to support the poor when it comes to AFDC, the Affordable Health Care Act  and Medicaid and tax reform as examples of society’s support of the poor. Many Americans resent helping the poor believing that they too should help themselves first before ever thinking about asking for help. They believe that the poor take advantage of our tax dollars rather than going out to find a job.
Judaism has tried to say that being poor is no honor but it is also not a sin. It is how we live with what we have that counts. It is the measure of a society’s commitment to its fellow citizens who are legitimately poor that springs out of the prophets and the Torah itself that matters most.

After Hurricane Mathew, we gave money to people who we thought needed the money and that would not have been able to survive without it. My view is that it is a privilege to help those in need. Shall we make such people whether in our own community or in the community at large feel inadequate just because they can’t afford the basics in life? Project Safe, for example, in Hilton Head is trying to raise money to supply sewer line hookups for the poor. They cost $6000 a person to make the connection.  Back pack buddies does this for kids who need food over the weekend after school. We are all about helping financially those who truly need our support. Yet must we frame such help as a handout when the truth is that a hand up and a hand out often perform the same mitzvah for the poor?
Baba Batra 11a (Talmud)
A story is told of Binyamin HaTzaddik, who was the supervisor of the community's tzedakah funds. Once, when food was scarce, a woman came to him and said, "Rabbi, feed me!" He replied, "I swear there is nothing in the tzedakah fund."  She said, "If you do not feed me, a woman and her seven children will die."  So he fed her from his own money.
 The ethos of providing financial contributions to the poor may be clear. Yet, that does not mean it is easy to fulfill. Is it not our duty to do so even if a hand up feels like a hand out? It is still our mitzvah.
shabbat shalom