“There shall be no needy among you.” (Deut 15:4)
“If however there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” (Deut 15:7)
“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deut 15:11)
Within one chapter, Torah tells us there will be no needy, there might be some needy, and there will never cease to be the needy. What is one to believe? What’s to be learned from that? Why does Torah present us with such a contradiction?
As some of you know, I started working downtown Chicago in a new job, working for Spertus Institute the graduate college of Jewish studies. I had been working out of my home, and although it was full time, there was a certain freedom to walking down the hall for one’s “commute”, and getting errands done during lunch, etc. Now, I’m taking an early train, walking a mile each way, back and forth from the school to the train station. It’s a beautiful time of the year (for now!) and the Michigan Avenue view is unequaled. It’s good to be working among people, too, instead of in near constant solitude.
There are other people I see every day, whom I never saw on my commute down the hallway: the homeless that inhabit every single block on my mile walk. They have signs, they have bundles, they have eyes and stories that pierce my heart every single morning and afternoon. Far from being invisible to me, they fill my eyes. Earlier this week, a particular man who habitually inhabited a certain corner, wasn’t there. I thought about him all day, and almost felt relieved when he showed up again today.
I can’t help them directly. I don’t have enough money to give to each of them, day after day, mile after mile. It will be cold soon, and I have no idea what that will be like. Sometimes I share some breakfast, or a sandwich, or some money, but it’s not enough. There are so many, and if I walk down a different street, I will see a whole other group.
I don’t have the answers. Torah tells me there will be no needy, but in case there are…well, there are. What are we to do? Open our hands to the poor. Our pockets may not be limitless, but our hearts can be. There will be no needy, if we do the work that has to be done, so that no one falls through the cracks in the sidewalks. It’s not just an ideal that Deuteronomy speaks about, it’s not just a dream world. There are real solutions. One city I read about goes around to the streetfolk and offers them a day’s work and pay, cleaning, gardening, doing the work a city needs doing. Another city has a shower-mobile and volunteer hairdressers that give people their dignity back by simply giving them a shower and a haircut. In San Francisco, Kevin Adler founded MiracleMessages, making short videos of some homeless, posted them, and have begun reuniting families, getting people off the streets. We can fix this.
These verses aren’t a contradiction. They are an injunction, and direction to go. They tell us that if we help those in need, they will no longer need. Find the way, find the connection between those verses, fill in the blanks. Instead of “hardening our hearts and shutting our hands”, we open them both, finding a way out of no way.