How we visualize and speak about people in poverty is part of caring for the needy. How we see circumstances and history contributing to poverty influences the flow of blessing or curse. And paying attention to whom we view as brothers is part of how we train our hearts and hands and minds to respond….
PDF version “The Commandment to See” (Spatz 8/17) [PDF]
dvar Torah, Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). Given at Temple Micah 8/19/17
The Commandment To See
Last week, Ed Lazere  touched on two topics in his dvar torah that I had planned to discuss this morning: The first is the idea of what the Torah challenges us to see, which arose in terms of the Torah’s warning that the People should not attribute their success to special virtue on their part.
The second topic relates more specifically to poverty. Ed pointed out that, according to a recent study , many in the U.S. believe that material poverty results from poor choices rather than factors outside one’s control, while Jews know, from generations of suffering at the hands of various powers, that our fate is not in our control.
He told us – and I hope I am paraphrasing correctly – that last week’s Torah portion, as well as long Jewish experience, caution against attributing any group’s material success, or lack thereof, to cultural, biological, or other group differences.
Along the way he posed the question: “Where would African Americans be today – in this city and elsewhere – if they had not faced hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination?”
In many ways, this says it all. And I considered finding an entirely new topic to explore this morning. But the Torah itself raises both issues, two weeks in a row, at least, and the topics are at the center of much Jewish teaching. So, I thought we could profitably spend a little longer on these ideas. We rarely get the opportunity to build on each other teachings, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to give this a try today.
I had been seeking to understand whether poverty in the Torah was understood as an accidental occurrence for some people in each season or as a fixed part of society’s structure. (See handout)
I’d been hoping to find teachings that would help us understand the consequences – for the needy and the poor and for ourselves, whether we’re poor or needy or not – of our views of poverty and the structures of wealth. I didn’t get there, as you can also see on the handout, but was instead steered toward another kind of structure.
Open Your Hand: Re’eh and Psalm 145
When the ancient Rabbis want to etch something in memory and make it part of regular practice and belief, they stick it in the siddur. Psalm 145 appears three times in the daily prayers. And the reasoning behind this is linked to commandments in this week’s Torah portion, particularly the ones about opening – and not shutting– the hand to the needy and the poor.
The Talmud, Berakhot 4b, asks why this particular psalm is recited thrice daily. Is it because of the acrostic,a common device suggesting the fullness of God’s nature? If so, argues R. Eleazar b. Abina, we’d use Psalm 119, which has eight verses for each letter of the alef-bet. Is it because of the phrase, “open your hand”? If so, he continues, we’d use Psalm 136 which includes “נֹתֵן לֶחֶם, לְכָל-בָּשָׂר [gives food to all flesh].” He concludes: “Rather, [the reason is] because it contains both.”
Jewish teachers have been explaining this explanation for a very long time. Innovative educator, Rabbi Rebecca Milder , covers the basics succinctly and powerfully here:
pote’ach et yadecha, umasbe’a lechol chai ratzon.
You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
On weekday mornings, there’s a custom to touch the box of tefillin on your left arm (symbolizing your heart), then the box of tefillin on your head, and kiss the strap, or to open your own hand, and look directly at it while saying the line. Halakhah tells us to have extra focus when we say poteach et yadecha.
All of Pesukei d’Zimra comes down to this single line: “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living being.” This is the verse that made Ashrei so beloved, the verse through which we are to hear all of the other verses in Pesukei d’Zimra. This is the verse that embodies the interconnectedness of all creation, and the verse that offers us the possibility of renewing, daily, our commitment to satisfying the desires of every living being. This is the verse – at the heart of Ashrei, at the heart of Pesukei d’Zimra – that can secure us a spot in the world to come: if only we would say it every day, hear its words, and allow ourselves to be moved to action.
– from a dvar tefillah [word on prayer], Congregation Rodfei Tzedek, November 17, 2012
Rabbi Midler concludes, saying we should hear the words of Psalm 145 and allow ourselves to be moved to action. But the Sephardic practice of literally opening one’s hand while reciting the verse is meant to engage the sense of sight as well as kinetic, body-training. The Ashkenazi practice of touching the tefillin is also designed to create a mind-picture as well as a kinetic sense. We don’t just hear Ashrei, when we practice in such a way, we train ourselves to see our own bodies and minds as potential instruments of God’s blessing. And that brings us back to the first verse of this week’s portion.
Exploring the Commandment to See
The portion begins with the word “Re’eh,” to “see” or “look,” sometimes translated as “behold.”
Grammatically, the verse is a little odd, because “re’eh” is a singular command, but the “you” in “I put before you – lifneichem” is plural.
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם: בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.
“See, I set before you today blessing and curse.”
This grammatical weirdness is not unique to this verse, as the 11th Century teacher Bachya Ibn Pakuda notes. In this particular case, he says the verse differentiates between two types of knowledge, linking the esoteric – that is, knowledge of “how God’s attributes of Justice and Mercy are influenced and channeled into the world in the form of blessing and curse” – with the singular verb, meant to indicate seeing with one’s mental eye; the more straightforward promise of blessings and threat of curses is linked with the plural lifneichem, addressing the whole nation.
(NOTE: More is available on Sefaria.org for Deut. 11:26, Bachya’s commentary)
Rabbi Shefa Gold, our contemporary – and a composer of one chant we use for Ashrei and other musi used at Temple Micah – offers this teaching:
We live at a time when our collective awakening, as communities, as nations, as a species has become crucial….
It is clear that the human family must wake up and make fundamental changes in the way we treat each other and our environment. God sets before us (as a collective consciousness) the choice for blessing or curse. Yet, in approaching that collective awakening we are each addressed personally, in the singular. You personally must open your eyes. You personally are challenged to see.
— Shefa Gold, Re’eh commentary (link above)
Abraham Ibn Ezra, roughly contemporary to Bachya, is often quoted on this verse. Ibn Ezra says the grammatical shift illustrates that the commandments are given to individuals and to the community.
Maybe this sounds obvious, especially because most who come after Ibn Ezra – including Shefa Gold and Bachya – take his insight for granted. But this idea that we, as a community, are commanded, apart from our obligations as individuals, is worth considering, particularly in light of the commandment to see.
Challenges in the Commandment to See
Jews today recognize many communal responsibilities, some mentioned in this portion: Celebrating festivals, for example, and helping maintain kashrut in some communities. And, as we head into Elul and the holidays, we are asked to consider a whole raft of sins, collective as well as individual, many of which involve the lips and thoughts, rather than physical actions.
This season reminds us – even if we didn’t have recent events screaming reminders at us – that words, and related mind-pictures have tremendous power. And this Torah portion warns us that we have an individual and a collective responsibility to ensure that word- and picture-power in the community does not endanger the flow of blessing or somehow impede God’s Mercy from manifesting.
The commandment to see and to recognize blessing and curse, both individually and collectively, is complicated and challenging.
If each of us is challenged to see, as part of a collective awakening, we are also challenged as a community to honor what others see. And what may look like blessing from one perspective might appear as a curse in other quarters.
Many Jews and non-Jews in recent months – or in the last week or so – have expressed a kind of rude awakening to what is flowing across the United States.
Rabbi Michael Feshbach  just posted to the Reform Judaism blog, for example:
Can this really be happening? We must be imagining it.
But the dreams of leaders past have changed into the nightmares we see today. A spirit alien to our highest values has taken over …our televisions, our devices, our civic life….
We deserve better than this. We are better than this. Let us act that way, today, and every day.
For many in this country, however, the nightmares are not new. In some circles, shock about what is manifesting in Charlottesville and around the country is met with confusion if not outright anger. And calls of “we are better than this” are met with, “oh, really!?”
All of this adds to the extreme difficulty in endeavoring to fulfill the collective duty to “see.”
We all have a lot to learn if we are to see together.
Help to See
The students at Maret School – just down the street from Temple Micah – are helping us visualize what most of us know, but may not see quite so clearly, about our own city. I think their amazing work, on the second side of the handout, can help us all improve our ability to see and fulfill commandments relating to this week’s and last week’s Torah portions:
- How we visualize and speak about people in poverty is part of caring for the needy.
- How we see circumstances and history contributing to poverty influences the flow of blessing or curse.
- And paying attention to whom we view as brothers is part of how we train our hearts and hands and minds to respond.
THANKS to the Maret School for permission to use the “Opportunity Map” for Washington DC. Created by 11th & 12th grade students, with guidance from Social Studies Teacher Ayo Heinegg Maywood. See attached handout.
Also see the project website for much more on this.
In closing I share three related sets of verse, from the Qur’an, from Christian scripture, and from Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead and an interesting artist and philanthropist on his own.
Do you see the one who rejects the faith?
He is the one who mistreats the orphan
and does not encourage feeding the poor.
Woe to those who pray
But are careless
Who make a show of devotion
but refuse to help the needy
– Sandow Birk’s Amerian Qur’an
First Epistle of John 3:17 reads:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need,
yet closes his heart against him,
how does God’s love abide in him?
– English Standard Version
And, from “The Sermon (I Do Believe)” :
Teach me how to do to others
As I would be done
Right down to the finish line
And still have time for fun
To clothe the ragged, feed the poor,
And all that high tone jazz
As though my life depended on it,
Till I find out it has
— Lyrics: Robert Hunter. Music: Mickey Hart
1) Over the summer at Temple Micah, volunteers lead services, read from the Torah and Haftarah, and give divrei Torah (words of Torah). Ed Lazere, who happens to be the Temple president, gave the dvar torah on August 12. Visit Temple Micah’s LiveStream archive and click on Shabbat morning, 8/12; jump ahead to 53:43 to hear his presentation.
2) Here’s the survey quoted: “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” Washington Post. Julia Zauzmer, August 3, 2017.
3) Rabbi Rebecca Milder is founder and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center in Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. http://www.nitzan.org/ I found her dvar tefillah posted on the website of Congregation Rodfei Zedek (Conservative). More resources on their Dvrei Tefillah page
4) Rabbi Michael Feshbach was for many years senior rabbi at Temple Shalom in Silver Spring, MD, not too far from Temple Micah. He is now at Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His letter to his new congregation, “If Not Now,” was posted to ReformJudaism.org on August 16, 2017
5) It is my own personal custom to quote something relating to the (Grateful) Dead from the bima each summer when I volunteer to lead a service or teach, and this seemed on point. More on this song at WhiteGum.
The Commandment to See by Virginia Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This dvar torah also appears during August 19, 2017 service in Temple Micah’s video archive.
On poverty in the Torah
Handout to accompany dvar torah, Temple Micah 8/19/17.
Parashat Re’eh. – Virginia Spatz
This week’s Torah portion (Re’eh, Deut 11:26–16:17) alone offers a convoluted range of ideas:
- Chapter 15 begins with a reminder about shmitah, a time of debt release which was to take place every seventh year as a means of helping to equalize wealth;
- In verse 15:4, we are told: “There shall be no needy among you…”
- Verse 15:7 begins: “If, however, there is a needy person among you…,”
- Verse 15:11 says: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.”
There is a fair amount of commentary on the apparent paradox of “no needy” and “never ceasing to have needy.” Most of what I found suggests that “no needy” applies to an ideal situation, which would entail if everyone followed all the relevant commandments, while “never cease to be needy” applies to the more likely scenario… given human nature.
Samuel, one of the most prominent teachers in 3rd Century Babylon, taught that “never cease to be needy” applies even to the Messianic Era, showing how little will change in overall order at that time. Not all rabbis agreed with Samuel, but his position is widely cited:
There is no difference between this world and the days of the Messiah except [that in the latter there will be no] bondage of foreign powers, as it says: For the poor shall never cease out of the land. (B. Talmud Berakhot 34b)
This still doesn’t tell us whether to expect – in the present world or in the Messianic Era – a varying group of people in temporarily straightened circumstances or one or more classes of perpetually poor.
To add yet more complexity, we have at least two terms for poverty: “needy – אֶבְיוֹן” (already discussed) and “poor – עֲנִיֶ” – as in Lechom Oni at the Passover Seder.
My research did not yield clear answers on any difference between “poor” and “needy” or explain whether each condition is understood as temporary or permanent. What I did find, though, was frequent reference to the second part of verse 15:11 –
For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:
open your hand ( פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ)
to the poor and needy kinsman in your land ( לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ, בְּאַרְצֶךָ)
– and constant reminders of the commandment to “open your hand – פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת-יָדֶךָ,” in imitation of God (as expressed in Psalm 145:16):
The eyes of all wait for You, and You give them their food in due season
You open Your hand, and satisfy every living thing with favor.
West of Rock Creek, where Temple Micah is situated, less than 8% of children live in poverty. Child poverty east of the Anacostia is as high as 67% in Historic Anacostia, with the Air Force base an exception at 6% and the Hillcrest area at 28%; most neighborhoods east of the river in the District suffer 30-55% child poverty.
– per DC Action for Children, based on 2011-15 ACS
Sharing DRAFT: “Geography of Opportunity” Report, created by 11th & 12th graders at Maret School, for “Mapping Inequity in DC” elective. USED WITH PERMISSION
Social Studies teacher Ayo Heinegg Maywood writes:
The premise of Ohio University Kirwan Institute’s concept of the “geography of opportunity” is that segregation or where one lives (geography or place) goes a long way in determining one’s access to education, credit, employment, and similar opportunities….
We downloaded the data from the US Census and joined it to shapefiles using an ArcGIS program to create our own GIS maps which visualize quantitative data….
The shading in the map below indicates greater (darker) or less (lighter) access to opportunity, with “opportunity” being an index of access to health, education, employment, transportation, housing, and wealth indicators. (Indicators that represent greater opportunity are entered as positive number while indicators representing less opportunity are entered as negative numbers.)
The circles indicate concentrations of African-Americans, with larger numbers indicating higher concentrations of African Americans and smaller circles indicating smaller concentrations.
Student Analysis: “In the late 1800s, Senator Francis Newlands built the suburb of Chevy Chase, which barred Blacks and Jews, and lobbied for creation of Rock Creek Park as a segregationist barrier… Newlands seems to have succeeded in his mission, because even today in 2107, DC remains firmly segregated by Rock Creek Park and Chevy Chase (in Ward 3) remains predominantly white.”
PLEASE VISIT the Opportunity Map for DC for full map and more analysis.