Re’eh: Why is there poverty in the world?

August 18, 2022

Poverty is humiliating, and creates social inequality. Why does poverty exist? Why doesn’t G-d give everyone their needs without them having to rely on others’ kindness? A class on the purpose of poverty and wealth, with life lessons for both the wealthy and poor.

A. Why Are There Poor People?

About to enter the land of Israel, the Jewish people hear from Moses that there will always be paupers among them, and cautious them to provide for their needs (Source 1)

A young man shares his financial concerns with the Rebbe Maharash. The Rebbe opens the window and teaches him a life lesson – just as the moon receives light from the sun, in all of creation there are those that give and those that receive. (Source 2)

The Rebbe quotes King David’s question brought in the Midrash – why is there a need for poor people to receive their sustenance through the wealthy. Why not sustain the poor directly? It could lead to the poor being resentful and the wealthy feeling haughty, as we see from an exchange between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus. (Source 3)

The answer is that it allows for the mitzvah of tzedoka, and specifically through interpersonal kindness, G-d will respond in kind and continue to sustain the world.

B. Why Me?

The individual pauper can still ask: Why was I chosen specifically for this role?

The Rebbe Maharash explains in the Maamar את הנושא that in all of creation there are givers and recipients, and concludes that nonetheless, the question is a valid one. Upon hearing this, all present broke out in tears. (Source 4)

(Baal Shem Tov story that illustrates this point)

C. Advice For Life

What should one do if it has been decreed they should live such a life?

The Rebbe gives two pieces of advice:

The first is to be happy with one’s lot as was Rabbi Zushe of Anipol – an extremely poor man who exemplified this trait and felt that he was truly lacking nothing.

What should one do if they still feel lacking? The Rambam writes that it is a mitzvah to ask G-d to provide us with our needs. On the other hand, the Zohar compares one that asks G-d for his needs to a dog. How do we reconcile these two sources?

The answer is that we ask G-d for our needs in order that we better be able to serve him. We should ask for ample livelihood in order that we are able to do mitzvot and give tzedakah. A request from this perspective is appropriate and proper, and is not included in the harsh words of the Zohar.

Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov learned from the angel Michael to advocate to G-d on behalf of Jews that were not scrupulously honest, saying that their intentions were to provide for their children’s weddings. (Source 5)

This then is the second piece of advice – to pray to G-d that one’s situation improves in order that he will be better able to serve G-d. 



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