The Importance of Societal Mitzvoth
Love and care for others is the basic foundation of the Torah, as Rabbi Akiva said: "Love your neighbor as yourself – this is a great rule in the Torah" (Leviticus 19:18, Sifra, ibid). From this stems the enormous mitzvah of helping those in distress, and consequently, the mitzvah of tzedakka (charity) for the poor is one of the most important commandments in the Torah. Our Sages said: "Charity is equivalent to all the other commandments" (Bava Batra 9a) and, "Whoever turns away his eyes from one who appeals for charity is considered as if he were serving idols" (Bava Batra 10a).
Contrary to the Leftist Position
However, there is a profound difference between the Torah’s position and that of the secular leftist movements. The leftist movement’s concepts are based on the ideological foundations of communism and socialism, namely, that all property and money belongs to everyone equally. And even if they are willing to admit that the idea of communism has gone bankrupt economically, they still believe in its message, and therefore according to their view, every person has the natural right to live in relative comfort, as standard in society.
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
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The cause of the poor’s situation doesn’t matter – no excuse will stand against the accusations leveled at society for having poor people in their midst. The reason for this is that, in principle, wealth belongs to everyone equally, and as long as there are people who live in relative comfort, they will be considered as oppressors of the poor and living at their expense.
The Torah’s Position
In contrast, according to the Torah’s instruction, the individual – including one who is poor – is the first one responsible for his own financial situation. Only after one makes all efforts to take care of himself but is unable to earn a living because of illness or old age, etc., only then is there an obligation to help him satisfy his needs. Even this duty is not imposed on society all at once; rather, it spreads from one circle to another – from the immediate family circle, to society at large.
This method is more just, because free choice and individual responsibility are the moral foundations of man’s existence in the world – if one chooses good – he merits a good life in this world, and in the World to Come; if he chooses evil – he is punished in this world, and the next. This is also true in regards to money and property. If one is lazy – he will be poor, and if he is diligent – he will reap the fruits of his labor.
This method is also effective, because it teaches a person to be responsible and hard-working, and it encourages competition promoting economic growth, which in the long run helps the poor. In addition, it is also the finest means of assisting the poor, for the highest level of charity is to help the poor stand on their own two feet, without the need of donations and benefits.
In contrast, the leftist methods never work, because they reinforce poverty and dash the poor person’s motivation to take responsibility and advance on his own. And by constantly raising taxes, they punish the rich, the hard-workers, and the entrepreneurs, and hamper their attempts to work for economic development.
Equality in the Torah
Indeed, there is a fundamental commandment in the Torah which expresses the equality of all people – the mitzvah of Yovel (the Jubilee year). According to this commandment all land in the country is divided equally among all the people of Israel, and even if one was forced to sell his field due to poverty, with the arrival of the Jubilee year, the land returns to him or his heirs, without compensation.
It is fitting for us to learn from this commandment that just as the land should be divided equally among all, so too, all natural resources belong to all of Israel equally. This includes air, water, minerals, gas, oil, etc. The proceeds of these resources should be spent on quality education for all. This is the foundation of equality which affords each individual the opportunity to take care of himself, according to his efforts and talent.
Indeed, natural resources should be divided equally, but the fruit of one’s hard work is his own. Beyond an individual’s privilege to work and get rich, he is commanded to help the poor; and so as not to detract from the principle of responsibility, this commandment is fulfilled by expanding circles of responsibility.
The Expanding Circles of Responsibility in Helping the Poor
In contrast to the socialist concept in which society as a whole is equally responsible for the welfare of the poor, according to the Torah, there are parallel circles of responsibility.
Within the first circle is the poor person himself, who is initially responsible for his own situation and that of his family. Therefore, if a person was able to work but instead, chose to cast himself on the public, gabbaei tzedakka (sextons responsible for charity allocations) would guarantee he worked. Only in a situation where one worked as hard as he could, but was still unable to get by, would he be given charity, as the Torah says, "You must help him pick up the load" (Deuteronomy 22:4) – it is a mitzvah to pick up the load together with him, but when he shirks his own responsibility, there is no mitzvah to help him.
When a poor person is unable to take care of himself, the responsibility is shifted to his relatives (as is the rule in redeeming hereditary land that was sold). If they are unable to help – the responsibility is shifted to the third circle, namely, the poor person’s neighbors. And if they are unable to provide for all the needs of their poor neighbors, members of the entire city must take charge, and only afterwards – society at large, as the Torah says: 'When, in a settlement in the land that God is giving you, any of your brothers is poor… do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7). It is also written: "When you lend money to My people, to the poor man among you…" (Exodus 22:24) – your poor [sc. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town — your poor come first (Bava Metzia 71a).
If there was a poor person who had relatives who were able to help but shirked their duty, the gabbaei tzeddaka would force them to do so, and only if they were unable to meet their poor relative’s needs, would they give him municipal, public funds (S. A., Y.D. 251:4).
The Expanding Circle Method is Just, Moral and Effective
When the responsibility to provide for the poor rests on relatives and neighbors they will try their best to make him a partner in work, so he can make a living on his own, and not always be a burden on them, and in this manner, place him on his own two feet. But when the poor receive benefits, relatives absolve themselves from responsibility and do make enough of an effort to ensure he works and makes a living.
The resulting damage is deep and prolonged, for in many cases, after a poor person becomes accustomed to accepting allowances and charities, he loses his dignity and ability to stand on his own; he also serves as a bad example for his children, and the odds of them escaping the cycle of poverty decrease.
Local Gabbaim (Sextons)
According to today’s conventional method, the State is responsible for the overall handling of all poor people, and social workers are not familiar on a long-term basis with the community they handle. According to the Torah, assistance to the poor should be given by local gabbaim who are familiar with them, because only they can help the poor in the most advantageous way. If possible, they will find him a job so he can make a living with dignity. If he is incapable of this, they will try to find him a job in which he can at least make a little money, and thus maintain his dignity in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his family.
The halakha itself states that the most excellent, unparalleled type of charity is to give a person the possibility of working and earning a living by himself (Rambam, S. A., 249:6).
In addition, when the treasurers are local residents, it's hard to fool them. This also is very important, for our Sages warned that the punishment for imposters posing as poor people in order to receive charity is that eventually they will truly be poor, and will not depart this world without having to beg for charity from others (Mishna Pe’ah 8:9).
This is a just punishment from Heaven, but in most cases there’s no need for miraculous intervention to bring it about, because a person who is accustomed to relying on assistance and charities loses his ability to earn a living on his own, and eventually truly becomes poor. This is the way the communist system led nations who chose to follow it to poverty.
Another significant advantage of the expanding circles method is that it places responsibility on the group to take care of the poor within their midst. In the Socialist system, aspects of which are practiced in Israel today, the State is responsible for the welfare of all citizens, creating entire groups of people who discard responsibility for their own livelihoods and get used to relying on financial benefits. Their representatives in the Knesset constantly demand reductions in payments for education, health, property taxes, supplementary funding for municipal budgets with State funds, etc., without their leaders accepting upon themselves the responsibility of correcting the situation. This is what happens in Arab society, and l’havdil, among our fellow Jews, the Haredim.
In an ideal situation according to halakha, when family and close neighbors are unable to help the poor, responsibility is shifted to the municipal circle, or the community among which the poor reside. This responsibility is the key to correcting the situation, because it goads the leaders of the society to make a self-assessment, to examine the causes of poverty, and seek advice on how to get out of it – for example, through the training of young people in professions in which they are able to make a decent living.
But when the State is responsible for the situation of all poor people alike, the public and the leaders who are part of the problem remove all responsibility from themselves, and argue that society does not help enough, and even interfere in solving the crisis.
As a result, instead of the allowances helping the poor escape the cycle of poverty, these subsidies help them maintain the lifestyle that led them to poverty in the first place, and the problem keeps on growing.
The Attitude towards Charity
The leftist method declares to the poor: "Don’t be afraid to demand what rightly belongs to you, it’s yours!" In contrast, according to the Torah, a poor person is required to thank all those who help him.
True, the rich have to try their best not to embarrass poor people who were forced to receive tzedakka, but there is nothing wrong with the poor person himself conducting self-examination, and considering whether he might also be at fault for his circumstances. In any event, this will motivate him to encourage his children to pursue their studies, so that later on in life, they can learn a trade and live comfortably.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.