Rethinking notions of wealth, poverty

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon

Torah lessons are often surprising and distinctive, unaligned with either historic or contemporary liberal or conservative positions. This week, the Torah may challenge our conceptions of “poor.”

Parashat Ki Tissa opens with contributions for the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary which would be erected and disassembled as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness. The commandment to donate the half-shekel is particularly attention-grabbing. “The rich may not give more and the poor may not give less.”

From one perspective, the command appears to be blatantly discriminatory. Why should the poor be burdened to contribute a far higher percentage of their assets than the wealthy? A half-shekel from 100 sh’kalim is one-half of one percent, but from 1000 sh’kalim, it is a mere 1/20th of a percent!

Throughout the Torah, Israel is enjoined to carry out special obligations towards the poor: setting aside the corner of the fields and leaving the smaller branches of grapes and olives, the dropped gleanings of wheat, and the forgotten bundles of wheat. Twice in a seven-year cycle we were to give the poor a tithe. Moreover, the poor were protected from losing their pledge when they could not pay their debt. Obligations to sustain the poor are pervasive. The Torah also calls our attention to other disadvantaged groups: widows, orphans, strangers. And the Prophets and the Sages remind us of our obligations to care for the poor.

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But here (and in cases before a court of law), the poor receive no special consideration. Indeed, nowhere in the Torah do economic conditions exempt or excuse violations of law, whether ritual or ethical. The overriding lesson is to not confuse sustaining the poor with selling them short. In this context, by mandating the exact same half-shekel contribution, the poor were required to give a full and equal share. And in doing so, the worth of the rich was not inflated or the poor not deflated.

The lesson of demanding from others a full share is too often absent in contemporary Jewish and American thinking. Even when motivated by noble considerations, we unwittingly weaken the souls of those who could make an equivalent and vital contribution. And without their contribution, we weaken our community.

The business model, which leaves the impression that Jews are consumers rather than full partners, is fundamentally incompatible with challenging others to be responsible to God and to the Jewish community. We could require the poor to make contributions of time as an absolute condition of synagogue membership. And young adults are in similar circumstances. For two to three generations Jewish youth has been taught that they are the recipients and the adults are the providers. And while to some extent this is true, a narcissistic culture has taken this laudable attitude to extremes. Even many adults somehow expect Jewish communal services to be there, as they enjoy the fruits of life, feeling little or no responsibility to plant and tend. As a result, not only has the character of these generations been maltransformed, but the next generation will be particularly ill-equipped to provide for themselves and for those who will come after them.

This week’s Torah obligation that requires the poor to be as responsible as the rich challenges us to rethink our approaches. Noble impulses are necessary and admirable, but yet insufficient; wisdom dictates that we strengthen each member of our community as a full shareholder, and as a result, the community as a whole, generation after generation, will be equipped to endure.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.