Why Help Those in Need?


Bill Dauster

This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17.

What duty do we owe the poor?

This week’s Torah reading discusses tithes, the Sabbatical year, and charity — what we owe those less fortunate. This week’s parshah exhorts us not to harden our heart or shut our hand against those in need.

Why should we help those in need? In his book “The Way into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World),” Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes that Jewish sources give us at least five reasons: For some of us, it’s enough that the Torah tells us to. Our fundamental law requires it.

Some feel that, on some level, all Jews promised to obey the commandments that our people received at Sinai.

For some, it is because we owe a duty to the members of our community. We are part of a group and have an obligation to help the group.

Some feel that how we conduct ourselves in this life affects our future in the world to come. For those of us who hold this faith, doing right serves our enlightened self-interest. And some seek to do what we see as God’s commandments out of love for God. In gratitude for the blessings that our Creator has given us, we should help to bring about the kind of world that God wants.

In addition to these reasons, we might admit that some of us are influenced by our reputations. We want others to see us as generous people. And as Socrates taught, the way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what we desire to appear.

Some do it because that is the kind of person we strive to be. We know that a giving person is a better person.

Professor Peter Singer observed that the “Hebrew word for ‘charity,’ tzedakah, simply means ‘justice’ and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”

And some seek to help others out of empathy. We see ourselves in our fellow human being. There, but for the grace of God, we could be.

Rabbi Shai Held writes, “The Torah exhorts Israel to remember that socioeconomic status tells us nothing at all about the real worth of people.

”In Rabbi Held’s analysis, “Exodus teaches that the Israelites must not oppress widows and orphans.” He argues that “Deuteronomy radicalizes Exodus’s teaching: It is not just active oppression of the poor that God finds intolerable, but even a refusal to be generous to them.”

Rabbi Held reads our parshah to tell us that “only a society truly committed to alleviating the suffering of those ravaged by poverty is worthy of God’s blessing.”

This coming week includes rosh chodesh — when we start the month of Elul. Elul is traditionally a time to search our hearts in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, now just over a month away. Elul is a time to begin the process of asking for forgiveness.

So perhaps it is no coincidence that in the coming week, as we begin to think about standing, in repentance, before our Maker on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this week’s parshah exhorts us to think about what we can do for the less fortunate.

Just over a month from now, we will read aloud the words of the prayer book that say that repentance, prayer and charity have the power to transform our destiny.

The blessing is: We still have time before the gates begin to close.

Questions for Discussion
Do we have a duty to give to the poor?
Why do we need to help the poor?
Does our duty to help poor people depend on whether they are in our own community? ■

Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer since 1986, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.

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