The Torah, in its discussion of our attitude toward giving charity, reports that poor people will never cease to be present among us. (Deuteronomy 15:11) A few verses earlier, in the context of loaning money the Torah states that ‘there will be no poor among you for G-d will bless you…’ (15:4)
Now, there is obviously a problem here since both verses cannot be fulfilled. Either there will be a time when, if we follow the dictates of the Torah concerning open-handedness to the poor, we will succeed in eradicating poverty, or there will never be such a time when there are no poor among us. It cannot be both.
This is a point discussed by the commentaries and a classic explanation offered is as follows: When the Torah asserts that there will be no poor among us, the emphasis is “among us.” That is, there will be no poor people within our own communities and our own relatives. However, there will always be needy people, who are not from our inner circle, who we are expected to help out.
The Torah offers a promise, a commitment, that needy people will always be present. Why does the Torah promise such a thing? Is it a benefit? Is it good for us?
Our sages state that more than a contributor does for the needy, the needy person does for the contributor. Common practice is for the recipient to be grateful and say thank you to the benefactor, but our sages imply that it should be the benefactor who thanks the recipient!
One of our objectives in life is for a person to develop one’s character into that of a good, kind and compassionate person. We must emulate G-d and our sages point out that just as G-d is merciful and full of grace we are also bidden to be thus. One cannot become a giving person without actually giving. Once cannot become a compassionate person if there is no one to have compassion upon. This is the purpose of poverty in the world. The needy become our objects of compassion, the people who supply opportunities for our own growth. We must be thankful for the presence of needy people for without them our ‘giving’ muscles will atrophy.
The same is true for other ailments. We tend to see a person in a vegetative state as having no purpose in the world. Nothing could be further than the truth! How much care does a person in a vegetative state invoke from others. People’s lives are changed by their interactions with disabled individuals. They suffer the extreme sacrifice, having to live their lives dependent on the help of others. But they are actually giving more than they take. They allow us to refine ourselves, to become better people, to learn how to give and exercise that muscle.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the great ethicist and champion of character building, once addressed a disciple who was concerned about the morals and spiritual well-being of another. “Don’t worry about his spiritual state,” said R’ Yisrael, “worry about his physical state. Does he have everything he needs to feed and clothe his family? Is his house warm in the winter? Worry about those aspects. His physical well-being is your spiritual well-being.”
R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that the ashkenazik version of the last blessing of the silent prayer contains seven attributes of G-d’s light, the spectrum on G-d’s spiritual rainbow. “bless us, our Father, all as one, with the light of Your face, for by the light of your face you have given us, Lord our G-d, 1)the Torah of life 2)the love of kindness 3)righteousness 4)blessing 5)compassion 6)life 7)and peace.”
The first two of the seven have adjectives attached to them: Torah of life and love of kindness. R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that these two are different from all the rest. Everything else we do for the sake of G-d. That should be our motive with everything. But when it comes to Torah, it is our whole life. We study Torah because it is Torah, because without it we have no life. Similarly, we are not kind because we want to perform a Mitzvah. We don’t recite a blessing before performing an act of kindness. We do it because we love it. The purpose of performing kindness is to be a kind person, to love performing kindness.
Never, the Torah promises, will recipients of kindness desist from your midst. It is the greatest blessing G-d can give us, the opportunity to give.