By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
I hadn’t seen my old friend Eli for quite some time. We would run into each other every couple of years, not because we planned it, but because we lived in the same city. We both loved to take long walks, and the frequency with which our paths crossed constantly amazed us. We also both enjoyed long talks. Eli was a self-described utopian. He had a clear picture in his mind of what an ideal world would look like. Although I too am somewhat of a utopian, compared to my old friend I am a hard-nosed realist.
Many of our past discussions were concerned with what we both believed was the unfair distribution of wealth in the world. Our most recent chance encounter found us reviving that old familiar topic.
Almost simultaneously, we were quoting chapter and verse from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). Ironically, each of us found a text to support our positions about societal ideals and social reality.
Eli had no trouble precisely recalling the following verse: “There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)
Eli thumped his hand down on the park bench triumphantly. “Clearly, the Torah envisions a world in which there are no poor people. That is unarguably the Torah’s ideal.”
I did not have to look very far for a verse that countered Eli’s source: “Give to him readily… For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:10-11)
We soon decided that to continue debating the issues of idealism versus realism would be pointless at our age. I granted him that we were indeed encouraged by the Torah to try as best we could to construct, if not a perfect world, then a vastly improved one. If we could not achieve the ideal of “there shall be no needy among you,” we could at least “open our hands” to those who were needy.
And Eli conceded that until we can attain an ideal world in which there are no needy, we had better scrupulously follow the Torah’s urgent plea that we “open our hands” to those who seem to “never cease to be needy.” “Until we achieve the ideal,” concluded Eli, “we had better face the reality and be fervently charitable.”
We parted ways, and were each fairly certain that it would be a while until chance brought us together. Was I in for a surprise!
The very next evening I received a rare telephone call from an unusually excited Eli. He had discovered a story that he had to share with me. It seems that he had come across a relatively new book, in Hebrew, on the weekly Torah portions. It was simply entitled “Perashot, Portions,” and subtitled “A New Look at the Portions of the Week.” The author, Chaim Navon, compiled the book from the weekly columns he had written for the Israeli newspaper, Makor Rishon.
Eli was particularly impressed by an old story that neither of us had heard before.
It was back in the early years of the 20th century when extreme socialism was in vogue and many believed that it would be the new world order. An old socialist leader was walking along the street with one of his devoted disciples. They passed a beggar pleading for alms. The master walked right by the poor man, but the disciple paused and gave him a few pennies. How shocked was the disciple when his master reprimanded him severely and called him a traitor to the cause.
The disciple objected, “All I did was help a poor person! Did you not teach us about the plight of the poverty-stricken worker?”
The master replied, “We are expecting the revolution, which will be a comprehensive and absolute solution to the problem of poverty. By relieving this
man and his desperation for even a moment, you were providing a temporary solution to his situation. That will delay and postpone the ultimate revolution.”
We spoke a little bit further about it, and came to the following conclusion: It is natural for humans to desire perfection. But they cannot allow that desire to get in the way of dealing with the ugly realities of life.
This week’s Torah portion, in verses that are separated by a few mere lines, drives home this important point. We must strive with all our might for a society in which poverty (and for that matter, all forms of human misery) is eliminated. But in our striving we cannot lose sight of the realities. Poverty exists and we must ameliorate it. We must expect that at every step along the way to the ideal world which we are commanded to create, there will be pressing problems that must be addressed immediately, even if that means that the long-term larger goals must be temporarily postponed.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.