Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Rabbi-in-Residence of the Jewish Funds for Justice and the author of There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition (Jewish Lights 2009) and is an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program (Class 11).  She can be reached at jjacobs@jewishjustice.org.

The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Jacobs’ book: There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition (Jewish Lights, 2009)

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses prepares the Jewish people for his imminent death by recounting the exodus narrative and by reminding the people of some essential divine laws. . . Moses’ final instructions. . . may be read as an exhortation not to be corrupted by newfound power and wealth, but rather to use this new position to establish a just society.  

There shall be no needy among you—for Adonai will surely bless you in the land which Adonai your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it if you diligently listen to the voice of Adonai your God, and observe and do the commandment that I command you this day. . . If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which Adonai your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand unto him. . . (Deuteronomy 15:4-8)

A striking feature of the Deuteronomy passage is the apparent contradiction between verse four, “There shall be no needy among you,” and verse eleven, “For the poor will never cease from the land.”. . .

Noting the conditional nature of the promise to eradicate poverty “if you diligently listen to the voice of Adonai your God,” most traditional commentators understand the passage as a prediction that the Jewish people will never fully obey the commandments. . .

If we accept that God’s promise in this passage relies on a condition that humans can never meet, we encounter at least two problems. First, such an interpretation contradicts a basic principle of rabbinic exegesis: the idea that every word of the Torah has a purpose.

Second, this suggestion raises an even more fundamental theological problem. If human beings are to hold ourselves responsible for observing the commandments of the Torah, we need to believe that God, at least, believes that we are capable of following these commandments. It would seem a betrayal of trust for the Torah to set out expectations that God already knows we will not fulfill.

Many commentators thus seek an alternative resolution of the apparent contradiction between the assurance that “there shall be no needy among you” and the warning that “the poor will never cease from your land.” Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban) writes:

“For the poor will never cease from the land” [means] it is impossible that the poor will permanently disappear. [Moses] mentions this because, having assured them that there would be no needy if they observed all of the commandments, he goes on to say, “I know that not every generation, forever, will observe all of the commandments to the point that there is no longer any need for commandments concerning the poor. . .” (Ramban’s commentary to Deut. 15)

With this explanation, Ramban portrays the biblical text as optimistic but realistic. According to his reading of this passage, the Jewish people will generally observe the commandments, but will not always do so perfectly. Even if one generation succeeds in temporarily eradicating poverty, the possibility remains that poverty will resurface in another generation. Thus, the Torah anticipates a perfected world, but it plans for an imperfect one. 

A common debate among those involved in antipoverty work concerns the relative value of direct service addressing immediate needs and of advocacy or organizing addressing the need for systemic change. Advocates for direct service argue that the hungry need to be fed today and that the homeless need somewhere to sleep tonight. Those who prefer organizing or advocacy point out that soup kitchens and shelters will never make hunger and homelessness disappear, whereas structural change might wipe out these problems.

The Deuteronomic response to this debate is a refusal to take sides, or better, an insistence on both. Rather than advocate exclusively either for long-term systemic change or for short-term response to need, this passage articulates a vision that balances the pursuit of full economic justice with attention to immediate concerns. In this reading, the text in question becomes a charge to work for the structural changes that will eventually bring about the end of poverty while also meeting the pressing needs of those around us.