There is a folk saying quoted in the Talmud and Midrash, which some sources even ascribe to Rabbi Akiba, “Poverty is as fitting to the Jews as a red bridle on a white horse.” It’s sweet, if a little fatalistic. Do we really think that poor Jews are so attractive? These days, it is not a small question, as greater and greater numbers of Jews find themselves jobless. That great alphabet soup of Jewish organizations has tightened its collective belt a notch or two, so even our Jewish professionals find themselves scrambling to make a living. And our philanthropists, those who made their millions in real estate or on Wall Street, well, they also are suffering.
What’s a Jew to do? We console ourselves with pithy folk wisdom about how beautifully we Jews wear our poverty. There’s even a midrash on Leviticus from the fifth-century Galilee, which imagines a Jew, perhaps having heard one hard-luck story too many, say to a fellow Jew, “Why don’t you just get a job? Look at those thighs, those knees, that flesh! Go work!” But these attitudes are far from the norm in our tradition’s attitudes toward poverty and charity. In fact, when that fellow refused the entreaty of his poor neighbor, God replied harshly, “It’s not enough that you won’t share with him what you have? To make it worse, you put the evil eye on the very flesh and bones that I, God, gave him?!”
By the fifth century, hundreds of years of inflation, war and the incursion of Christianity into the Land of Israel left the Jewish community impoverished. Yet our rabbis were inclined not only to feed the hungry, but to take account of their former station in life as they doled out charity to the needy members of the Jewish community. As the Psalmist says, “Happy is the one who is thoughtful of the wretched” (Psalm 41:2). Upon which comments Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (Chapter 34, a lovely meditation on poverty and charity, which I quote from throughout this essay): “Rabbi Yona said that the Psalm doesn’t say, ‘Happy is the one who gives to the wretched,’ but rather ‘who is thoughtful of the wretched.’” Rabbi Yona explained that this refers to the person who looks into how to best benefit the poor. He offers an example, “If one formerly was wealthy and has been reduced to poverty, you should realize how embarrassed he might be in asking for help. To such a one Rabbi Yona would say that he had heard that the fellow was in line to receive an inheritance, ‘so take this now and repay me when you have the cash.’ When that person came to pay him back, Rabbi Yona would tut-tut and say, ‘Never mind, it was a gift.’”
Our rabbis teach that affording dignity to the poor is almost as important as feeding and clothing them. As for the solemn obligation toward caring for the poor that comes with being a member of the Jewish community, the Midrash imagines that the one who lends to the jobless has taken on God’s own obligation. And God will recognize that now the task is God’s to repay the lender who stood in God’s stead. Indeed, another midrash in Leviticus Rabbah imagines that when a poor person knocks at your door begging for sustenance, God stands at that one’s right hand, just behind him. As it were, God’s got his back — as well as standing by the one who gives generously. As big a deal as it may be to give to the needy (and it is a very big deal, as well as a mitzvah), the rabbis know that for the poor person, the loss of self-esteem may be paramount.
In the Land of Israel in the fifth century, it was common for the poor to beg by saying to those whom they approached, “Zekhi bi.” This bit of colloquial Aramaic packs a wallop. On the simplest level, the poor person is saying, “Gain merit through me.” Which is to say: if you give me charity, God will reward you for performing this vital commandment. Yet there is more, for the midrash points out how easily those two words can be heard as “Sekhi bi.” Literally translated it now means: “See me!” We do not need to refer to the movie “Avatar” to understand the existential significance of “I see you.” Imagine, the midrash instructs us, that the poor person is saying, “See me! See what I am; what I was, and what I have become.” If that were not sufficient pathos to inspire your donation, the midrash brings it home by reminding us, “It could as easily be you.” As they say, “The wheel turns.”
We are taught that some folks gave their own version of a matching grant to the local poor. When Rabbi Tanhum ben Hiyya’s mother did her marketing, she shopped on a two-for-one plan. For every item she put into her shopping cart for her family, she added a second for the local poor. Imagine if every time you ate in a restaurant (I live on the Upper West Side and do so frequently), you were to designate the same amount for charity. Imagine if you even designated 10 percent of your daily food budget to charity — for how can you sit down to eat knowing other folks are hungry? And how can you buy new clothing knowing others are wearing thin rags? And how can you sleep at night knowing that there are thousands of homeless in our own metropolitan community?
Neither I nor the Midrash are suggesting that we must donate half of our income to the poor (in fact, Jewish law would frown on that for all but the wealthiest givers). But our tradition suggests that we always be aware of the needy among us. As they say, “Sekhi Bi. See me.”
Of course, there are those who take advantage of our good nature, our Jewish guilt or our sense of commandment. Another midrash in Leviticus Rabbah tells of Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimeon ben Laqish — early third-century rabbis — who went to the public bathhouse in the town of Tiberias. As they entered, a pauper begged them, saying, “Gain merit by donating to me.” The rabbis told him that they would take care of him on their way out. Having bathed, they left, and found that beggar had died on the steps of the bathhouse! Contrite, they determined to give him a proper burial; as it was all they now could do for him. Yet when they went to wash his body, they found a bag of gold coins around his neck, hidden among his rags. When the rabbis realized that the beggar had been a fraud, they thanked God even for the fraudulent beggars. Why so? Because no one, not even our pious rabbis, always gives to everyone who asks. And yet, if their need is genuine and we do not give, we are possibly condemning them, and so, ourselves, to death. So give, and while you do so, also give thanks for those fraudulent beggars, too.
So how is it that with such a sympathetic and sophisticated take on poverty and charity, the rabbis could say that poverty “is as fitting to the Jews as a red bridle on a white horse?” If we understand it in its fifth-century context, we will see that it is anything but a statement of complacency about poverty or a fatalistic acceptance of joblessness. Back in the days of Byzantine Palestine, horse racing was all the rage throughout the empire. The racing teams were divided into four factions: blue, green, red and white. The trouble was, by the early fifth century, the red team had a winning record like that of the Mets this past season, or the Knicks for the past few years. What the folk saying was telling us was that poverty is a sure loser for the Jews. There’s neither fun nor attractiveness in being poor.
When you see someone who is out of a job, or down on their luck, or in need: gain merit through them. Perform a mitzvah. See them.
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky serves as the Appleman professor of Midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His new book, “Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud,” will be published by Jewish Lights next year.