Rabbi Uri Lam | Temple Beth-El, São Paulo, Brazil
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11:26)
Last week I met four young Jews with the intention of creating a new group in my congregation for young adults. One of their very first positions is that religious activities must come together with concrete social action. Everyone was aware that this is an obligation for us not only as Jews, but as Brazilian Jews who walk through the streets and see what is happening: more and more beggars on the sidewalks, people going through the trash cans searching for food, men and women walking among beautiful cars with placards in their hands where shocking words can be read, such as: “I haven’t eaten in days, please, I’m hungry.” The truth is, at least where I live, misery on the streets has increased considerably in recent months. There is no way not to see it.
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”. God has set before our eyes both poverty and wealth. Our eyes see everything: the woman with the filthy baby on the sidewalk, the drug addict smoking crack on the corners. As human beings, we can choose to see poverty and wealth at the same time, or only poverty, or only wealth. For many people, it is very difficult in everyday life to pay attention – and maintain compassion for – people who, day after day, accumulate under the overpasses and in the squares as if they were part of the garbage not collected by the government. But when there comes a point where they become invisible from our view, we stop being human beings. If we go back to the beginning of our parshah, it’s as if the order were just: “See, this day I set before you blessing.” Not because damn misery no longer exists, but only because we no longer see it.
On this topic, I highlight two reasons put by medieval commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) for helping a person in a miserable state: “For, because of this person’s poverty and need, it is appropriate to have compassion on him/her and to provide sufficient for this person’s need… Because of this person’s need, it is appropriate for the person to whom the blessed God has given from God’s goodness to have compassion on the one who is in need of him/her. As the Rabbis said, “If a person says, ‘sustain me,’ listen to this person” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 9a). This is what is meant by “There will be no needy among you.” … and because of neighborliness and love. (on Deuteronomy 15).
Isaac Caro (1458-1535), in his Toldot Yitzchak (on Deuteronomy 15) is quite straightforward in explaining the reasons why there are poor people in the world and what can happen if, even being responsible for this poverty, we do not help them: “The reason that the poor person is poor is because the rich person is rich; when your star ascends, his star descends. For this reason, the text says, “The poor person with you.” What need is there to say, “with you”? To indicate that you are the reason that he is poor. And if you do not give to him, what will God do? God will rotate the universe in such a way that the star that is on top will sink to the bottom, and the star that is on the bottom will rise to the top.”
The same parshah that speaks of our – moral, divine, human – obligation to see blessings and curses around us at the same time is the same saying that “you are Am Kadosh, you are Holy People to YHVH your God: YHVH your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His Am Segulah, His Treasured People.” (Deut. 14:2) Following are several rules on kashrut related to food. But what struck me the most is the verse immediately following that, in which we are defined as a Holy People, chosen to be Treasure People:
Shall: “You shall not eat anything abhorrent (לא תֹאכַ֖ל כָּל־תּוֹעֵבָֽה)”.
What does it mean “to eat” here? What’s more, what does it means “to eat toevah”? Toevah means: detestable, hateful, repellent, execrable, disgusting – among many other adjectives. Eating in this case may mean not accepting anything that is detestable, disgusting, hateful. In other words: when the context is that we are commanded to see at the same time curses and blessings before us – or all misery together with all wealth – a kosher attitude is not “to eat”, it is not to accept anything disgusting. Before eating with the mouth, we see: we eat with the eyes. As Reform and Progressive Jews, if we see ourselves as mentschen, we should pay special attention to the mitzvah of “You shall not eat anything abhorrent”. But how? By acting in such a way that “There shall be no needy”, through practical social work; not by removing the miserables from the streets and making it clean; but by removing their misery. And if we are the reason that he one is poor, what could happen if we do not give them what they need?
Not giving cannot be an alternative. We can no longer afford to swallow this toevah which is the growing misery around us. Especially if we want to see ourselves as Am Kadosh and as Am Segulah.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).