Friday, August 22, 2014

There shall be no needy... Parashat Re'eh Flasback - 5773

There shall be no needy... Parashat Re’eh
August 2, 2013 ~ 26 Av 5773
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

We ran bags of winter coats down broadway, hung them on the racks,
turned our backs, and within 10 minutes they were gone.

It was freezing in New York City that winter. Filenes Basement, may its memory be a blessing, was going out of business. The flagship store in Union Square had rows and rows of racks and racks stocked with discounted winter wear: coats, hats, scarves, gloves.

We had 45 minutes, a huge store credit to spend, and the HUC Soup Kitchen’s clothing rack awaiting our purchase a mere 10 blocks away.

As I marched around that winter in my tundra-looks-like-a-sleeping-bag- down winter coat, multiple options for hat and scarf to suit my daily outfit
or mood, warm gloves, usually a hot cup of coffee in tow - I knew that the winter wear we were purchasing was not as insulated, not as aesthetically pleasing, not as comfortable, not as nice - and simply not as warm - as I felt each day out in the cold.

I also knew that the amount of time I wore a winter coat to protect me from
the gray, harsh, turn-your-lips-blue cold was far less time than those
whose homes or lack of homes were always cooled by the gray, harsh, turn-your-lips-blue cold.

So when we ran bags of winter coats down Broadway (we took a cab), hung them on the racks, turned our backs, and within 10 minutes they were gone - and it was freezing in New York City that winter - I felt guilty in my tundra-looks-like-a-sleeping-bag- down winter coat.

As we headed back toward the subway, I said to my sister: Why did we even bother? We bought 20 coats, but there were 40 people who needed coats. Did we really help anyone if we didn’t help them all?

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, draws our eyesight to a great deal of teachings.  Literally “Re’eh” it compels us - “See, notice, focus!” Focus on our pilgrimage festivals; notice our human capacity to choose between blessing and curse; pay heed to the need to find central locations for worship; and notice, engrain in your minds eye, the laws of kashrut, the sabbatical year, how to treat slaves, and a prohibition from worshiping other gods.

Each teaching a sermon in itself, there is one quick sentence halfway through most compelling.

“There shall be no needy among you...” Parashat Re’eh teaches us.
Efes ki lo yi’hiei b’cha ev’yon.

“There shall be no needy among you — since God will bless you in the land that God is giving you as a hereditary portion...For Adonai your God will bless you as promised: [and] you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself.”  (Deut. 15:4-6)

When the text says “no needy among you” it means no needy Jews, but we know that’s not true. Even if its not always apparent to us, we know there are Jews in need.

The text continues, and I paraphrase: When you encounter another in need, “You must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs...Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so....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.”

This imperative to help the needy among us exists throughout the Torah
not just here, but this time its harder to hear.  This time, Torah suggests,
that no matter what you do to help there will always be needy ones in your land.

It’s exhausting, debilitating even, to think of all the people in need among us.  To think of all the systems our country has in place, all the mitzvot and tikkun olam projects communities like ours have in place, all the teens, all the families, working hours to collect goods, to serve food, to house the homeless, to feed the hungry. It’s exhausting to know that
with all of our effort there will still be needy among us.

But it’s a first world problem to be exhausted and upset by all the need in the world. It’s far more exhausting to be the mother trying to feed her children, to be the father trying to keep a roof over their heads.  It’s far more exhausting to find work that pays a living wage. And it’s far more exhausting to navigate the many systems created to help the needy among us.

And while many have their critique about why people are ‘needy’ in the first place, the bottom line is that from the beginning of time there have been needy among us.  And till the end of time we are obligated to help them.
And while some of that help is direct service - like raising money, goods, or serving food - much more of the work we need to do deals with attacking root causes. The work of: repairing global hunger while also feeding the globally hungry; creating systems of equitable education while also teaching youth already in the broken system.  

*
As we headed back toward the subway, I said to my sister: “Why did we even bother? We bought 20 coats, but there were 40 people who needed coats?.  Did we really help anyone, if we didn’t help them all?

Also an aficionado of summer camp music, many songs of whose lyrics
come from Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of Our Fathers, she responded thoughtfully. “You know that song? Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor/It’s not your responsibility to complete the work...”

I nodded yes as the train whizzed us back to Brooklyn.

“Well,” she continued, “it concludes like this: Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor/V'lo ata ben chorin l'hibatil mimena.  It’s not your responsibility to complete the work, Jen...but neither are you free to desist from doing it.”

Little sisters can be very wise.

The Torah teaches us that even though there will probably always be needy among us, and even though 20 winter coats are never enough for 40 cold people, and a truckload of food collected at the high holidays is never enough for two truckloads of hungry people - even though there will always be needy among us and both root causes and immediate causes for which to respond - even though it may not be our responsibility to complete the task, we must remind ourselves when we notice all the need around us, that as overwhelming as it may be, and so much easier to avert our gaze...

Re’eh, we must see it, we must notice it, we can never desist from it, we can never refrain from it. V'lo ata ben chorin l'hibatil mimena - Re’eh! We are never free to look the other way.

To donate to Hebrew Union College's Soup Kitchen, among many worthy causes - click here.