Re'eh: Poverty & Poverty, Wealth & Wealth

This week is “Homelessness Action Week” in Vancouver.

Today is the day that Vancouver’s Tikva Housing Society has chosen to bring its message to us.

Today is the first day of the “Occupy Vancouver” protest.

Today is the middle of the holiday of Sukkot. The rituals of Sukkot invite us to reflect on home and homelessness, harvest and famine, built environments and natural environments.

It’s a good day for thinking about the dualities of modern life.

Even though traditional Jewish thought can never be encompassed in a single duality.

“Two Jews, three opinions” is not a new phenomenon.

Often, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) offers multiple opinions on a single topic. We get to read different views about rituals, political philosophies, historical events, and even the nature of God.

Scholars in Jewish Studies even have a name for this: “inner-biblical interpretation.”

A writer reflects on something written by an earlier writer, and comes to a different conclusion. The writer chooses language hinting at the older view, and offers their own, contrasting view.

But sometimes the multiple opinions are placed so closely together in the text that you can’t explain them away as “inner Biblical interpretation.”

Parshat Re’eh (Devarim/Deuteronomy chapter 15) is a great example.

Verse 4 says, “There will be absolutely no poor people among you.”

Verse 11 says, “There will not cease to be poor people among you.”

How do we make sense of this?

Maybe the Hebrew word for “poor” in both verses is different? Maybe a better translation would use different words and end the contradiction?

Nope – both verses use the same Hebrew word, evyon. 

Maybe the contradiction is the work of  a sloppy ancient editor who forgot to delete an extra “no”?

Nope – the Masoretic scholars spent 300 years annotating the text of the Torah. They paid attention to everything that looked like a mistake in copyediting. And they paid special attention to places where the words “no” or “not” didn’t belong. But here, they decided that the words do belong.

There will be absolutely no poor people among you.

There will not cease to be poor people among you.

It looks like an intentional paradox.

Does the writer want us to leap into impractical ways of thinking?


Is the writer trying to express big ideas but is stuck with narrow everyday language?


Here is the larger context in which the paradox is found.

If you who lend money forgive the debts owed to you once every seven years, there will be absolutely no poor people among you.

Because there will not cease to be poor people among you, when your kin fall upon hard times, you must be prepared to lend them money without charging interest.

This larger context helps us see that the writer is trying to express an impractical, idealistic, big idea, an idea bigger than the language available.

On the one hand, Torah says that some of the causes of poverty will never go away. Illness, family disruption, natural disasters will leave some people unable to work. People in these transient situations will need interest-free loans so they can weather disruption and create a more stable life.

On the other hand, Torah says that a single setback can start a chain of poverty that lasts for generations. Someone might borrow money, make modest progress, be unable to pay the money back, need a second loan, be less able to pay it back…and eventually be required to offer years of unpaid labor to the creditor to make things right.

This, Torah says, is slavery.

The conditions that create slavery cannot go on forever. There must be a stopping point, a kind of economic reset button.

Maybe total loan forgiveness every seven years is not a practical solution. But calling for it expresses an important principle: we must have some kind of economic reset before slavery becomes a social structure.

Poverty itself is not the problem.

There is a kind of transient poverty that no society can avoid. But a society can resolve to respond to it. This is the work that the Tikva Housing Society does.

There is also a kind of institutionalized poverty that a society can avoid. The kind you see, for example, in the U.S. housing crisis.

The wealthy seek out the poor, offering low-interest housing loans, at rates calculated to fall just beyond the poor person’s reach. As expected, the poor person cannot repay the loan, and the wealthy repossess the property.

When the poor turn to the government for assistance, the wealthy discourage the government from offering it. They argue that poverty is a moral failing and should not be rewarded.

But they don’t say out loud how much they benefit from the ability to repossess property or hire desperate people at unsustainable wages.

This is the kind of cycle that people will be protesting at Occupy Vancouver.

Seen in the light of Torah, these two projects, Tikva Housing and Occupy Vancouver, take us beyond a simple duality of rich and poor.

Poverty is not just one thing. It can be temporary or it can be structured right into a society. (And it has many more sides not discussed in this Torah passage.)

Wealth is not just one thing. Money gives people the power to help and it gives the power to harm.

I know which power Torah chooses, which power Tikva Housing Society, which power Occupy Vancouver chooses, and which power Or Shalom chooses.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2011


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