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D'varim/Deuteronomy 24:14 You shall not oppress a poor or needy hired labourer from your brothers or from your soujourners that are in your land, in your gates.
Rashi points out that there is a difference between the poor and the needy even though both are working as day-labourers, hiring themselves out for the day. The noun comes from the root - to afflict, depress or humble - the noun means an afflicted, distressed, poor or needy person (Davidson). The noun comes from the root - to be willing, inclined or desirous - so the noun has the meanings "poor or needy" and "miserable or wretched". Rashi comments: "one who longs for everything" because he has nothing; the word denotes a greater degree of poverty.
The verb comes from the root - to oppress or to defraud. Jeffrey Tigay explains that it can be used to mean "delay" and in the case of day labourers, delaying their wages constitutes not only oppression but theft because the employer is effectively stealing their livelihood and ability to feed themselves and their families today. This theme is addressed again by the prophet who rails against "'those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me', says the L-RD of hosts" (Malachi 3:5, NASB). TheBaal HaTurim goes a step further and suggests that because this verse follows verses (10-13) that talk about loans, even if a worker owes the employer money, the wages may not be withheld as payment of the debt, but must be paid on time and then a request for payment made.
As well as the poor among "your brothers", Rashi points out that there are two other groups of potentially poor people, both of whom are classed as sojourners or converts. The noun comes from the root , most often translated as "to sojourn or dwell", with the noun being taken as "sojourner, foreigner, stranger". Often, however, Judaism understands to mean a righteous Gentile or a convert, one who has fully embraced the G-d of Israel and taken on the yoke of the Torah. RabbiHirsch points out, however, that everyone who accepts the seven Noachide Laws has a right of residence in the Land of Israel. The sojourners that are "in your land" are being those righteous Gentiles who have accepted the Noachide Laws and so live cheek by jowl with the Israelites in the Land, while those who are "in your gates" are those who pay rent for animals or implements and thus extends the commandment to apply even outside the Land in Jewish cities and communities in the Diaspora.
Despite the huge affluence of some individuals and the apparent wealth1 of western society as a whole, it is clear that there are many poor and needy people in every society. These people are often highly vulnerable, including many women, children, elderly, sick and disabled. The prophet Isaiah speaks out about those who are responsible, "Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights, in order that widows may be their spoil, and that they may plunder the orphans" (Isaiah 10:1-2, NASB), while James explains what G-d wants: "This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our G-d and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27, NASB).
NGOs and charities work hard to meet the needs of the poor around the world on a non-partisan basis, supplying millions of tons of food aid, providing healthcare, teaching vital skills in water technology and agriculture to anyone in need. Without their work, many more people would starve and be without the basic necessities of life either because their own governments cannot or will not help or are suspicious of the direct assistance of other nations. Many of these aid organisations are religious, seeking to share their faith with the people they help; a few are selective, only offering help to those who are part of their particular faith group. Rav Sha'ul spoke about the need to reach out to everyone, whether believers or not, albeit that believers get some priority: "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith" (Galatians 6:10, NASB).
Looking around us, though, it seems clear that not only is the problem of poverty not going to go away soon, it seems to be getting worse. Blaming radical Islam - and they must take a significant share of blame in some parts of the world - or global warming - where the jury is still out as whether this is either good science or a significant threat - is an excuse that many use to avoid meeting their responsibility to help pay for and alleviate poverty. Judaism teaches that one should give a minimum of ten percent of one's income to tz'daka - charity - but not more than twenty percent; some of the church encourages tithing as a minimum standard, while others teach that tithing is a meaningless legalism and that giving - however much or little - should always and only be a matter for conscience and the Holy Spirit. It is clear, however, that any one individual giving all their money and worldly possessions to charity and even reducing themselves to penury will not solve the problems of world poverty and that G-d does not expect anyone to do that. Yeshua's comment that "the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good" (Mark 14:7, NASB) is just as true today as when He spoke it two thousand years ago and will remain so until the Messianic age comes and He rules the world from Jerusalem.
The Mishnah cites Rabbi Tarfon putting his finger firmly on the nub of the issue: "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it" (m. Pirkei Avot 2:21). This is true for all of us. Even though world poverty cannot be solved by us and our actions, we do have a clear responsibility to play our part in doing what we can and giving a reasonable donation. Landslides or earthquakes, volcanoes or drought - at the bottom of them all are people: grieving, starving, dying people. If our contributions help save a life, cover a child's living or education costs, feed a starving mother or pay for an operation to restore someone's sight, then "the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me'" (Matthew 25:40, NASB).
1 - We say 'apparent wealth' as much of what passes for wealth these days is often funded with debt, lavish lifestyles bought on credit.
Further Study: Matthew 10:42; Acts 11:29
Application: Where do you stand in your charitable giving? Is it time to search your heart before G-d and see if He wants to see a change in your policy?
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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