Poverty is hardly beautiful, but we are commanded not to look away from it.
Brass ‘Shul’/Temple-shaped Charity Container.
There is a folk saying quoted in the Talmud and Midrash, which some sources even ascribe to Rabbi Akiba, “Poverty is as fitting to the Jews as a red bridle on a white horse.” It’s sweet, if a little fatalistic. Do we really think that poor Jews are so attractive? These days, it is not a small question, as greater and greater numbers of Jews find themselves jobless. That great alphabet soup of Jewish organizations has tightened its collective belt a notch or two, so even our Jewish professionals find themselves scrambling to make a living. And our philanthropists, those who made their millions in real estate or on Wall Street, well, they also are suffering.
What’s a Jew to do? We console ourselves with pithy folk wisdom about how beautifully we Jews wear our poverty. There’s even a midrash on Leviticus from the fifth-century Galilee, which imagines a Jew, perhaps having heard one hard-luck story too many, say to a fellow Jew, “Why don’t you just get a job? Look at those thighs, those knees, that flesh! Go work!” But these attitudes are far from the norm in our tradition’s attitudes toward poverty and charity. In fact, when that fellow refused the entreaty of his poor neighbor, God replied harshly, “It’s not enough that you won’t share with him what you have? To make it worse, you put the evil eye on the very flesh and bones that I, God, gave him?!”…READ MORE
So how is it that with such a sympathetic and sophisticated take on poverty and charity, the rabbis could say that poverty “is as fitting to the Jews as a red bridle on a white horse?” If we understand it in its fifth-century context, we will see that it is anything but a statement of complacency about poverty or a fatalistic acceptance of joblessness. Back in the days of Byzantine Palestine, horse racing was all the rage throughout the empire. The racing teams were divided into four factions: blue, green, red and white. The trouble was, by the early fifth century, the red team had a winning record like that of the Mets this past season, or the Knicks for the past few years. What the folk saying was telling us was that poverty is a sure loser for the Jews. There’s neither fun nor attractiveness in being poor.
When you see someone who is out of a job, or down on their luck, or in need: gain merit through them. Perform a mitzvah. See them.