Poverty and Wealth, an eternal gap?

Prepared by Clare Goldwater, February 2009

(יא) כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃ (ס)

For there will never cease to be needy ones from the midst of the land, which is why I command you: open your hand to your fellows, your poor and your needy in your land. [JPS translation]

Samson Raphael Hirsch, Deuteronomy 15:11

The verse does not say “from your midst [mikirbecha]” or “from the midst of your land [mikerev artzecha],” but “from the midst of the land [mikerev ha’aretz].” It lies well in the course of the natural development of things that, left to itself, the greatest differences in fortunes, want and surplus, poverty and riches, should exist next to each other. The inequality of mental gifts would already produce such inequalities [of living standards] as a natural consequence. Also, two sons starting from home with exactly equal means, with one, say, having to provide for a single child, and the other for a large family, would soon present a very considerable difference in their means, and if the latter meets illness and other misfortune, the second generation would already be in dire need, in contrast to the rich opulence of the other branch of the family. But this condition of need, which naturally arises elsewhere in the world, you are not allowed to occur “in your land [be’artzecha],” in the land of God’s Torah. In the carrying out of the special guidance which is attached to it, where the Torah effects the ironing out of these naturally occurring contrasts, there every poor brother is to find in his rich relatives, his “brother,” there every poor and needy person belongs to you, …[and] under the regime of a Torah-dutiful nation, a Torah community, penury and need would only temporarily affect any individual, and with God’s assistance, be changed to a happy existence on Earth, commensurate with the dignity of a human being. [Isaac Levy translation, modified]

Discussion Questions:

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What power dynamics are at play?
3. The text states that there will always be poverty. What is your reaction to this?

4. What is Hirsch suggesting about the existence of poverty and the re-distribution of wealth?

5. There is often a concern that being an activist will not result in real change. According to this text, real change is not the purpose of activism. How would you use this text to respond to such a concern?