Re’eh: The Poor Cry Out

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh 
 
“Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 15:9) 
 
Good afternoon! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, has a whole variety of different laws, including instructions about avoiding idolatry, making the proper offerings, charity, dietary practices and the holy days. The verse above comes from a section that mentions the shmittah, or sabbatical year: every seven years the land lies fallow and debts are forgiven. The Torah anticipates that some might refuse to lend to the needy in the fifth or sixth year, figuring that the debt would be canceled before it is repaid, so there is a law specifically mandating that loans be made to the poor even as the sabbatical year approaches. 
 
However, our friend Rashi finds a possible contradiction between this verse and another. Reading the clause that warns “he will cry out to the Lord against you,” (if you don’t make a loan to the needy), Rashi asks if this could possibly be a positive commandment: that is, “he will cry out” could theoretically mean that the poor must cry out before they are to be helped. However, he points out that there’s another verse a few chapters later which also deals with the poor “crying out:”
 
“You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you. . .” (D’varim 24:15)
 
In the verse above, dealing with paying a worker daily, the image of the poor man crying out is clearly a warning: don’t withhold the money, or else the poor man will cry out against you.
 
Rashi takes this second verse to clarify the first: it’s not that the poor are supposed to cry out, but if we don’t give, they will, and letting poverty get to that level of desperation is the sin of those who could have helped. In other words- we’re supposed to give loans or aid before there is a “crying out.” Now, obviously, nobody can give enough charity to support all the poor of the world, but it’s equally true that we are each responsible for helping as best we can as early and as often as we are able. All to often, we wait until the “crying out,” which might be a disaster or crisis or images of utter deprivation, but the mitzvah is to help before that. Perhaps in our day this mitzvah is best fulfilled by supporting those charitable organizations which help people with counseling, education, shelter and food, but in any event, the point is clear: don’t wait to give. 
 
The Torah teaches that each of us responsible for creating a compassionate community; the challenge is to respond to the crying out before those cries reach the heavens. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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