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Who feeds the poor?

Like many incidents and tales in the Talmud, this one’s charm tends to obscure its meaning. A sweet, unlikely or fantastical Talmudic encounter can deter the rational eye. In this encounter, a few short phrases say a lot, while also clearing up an oddity in a verse in Psalms that is embedded thrice in the daily prayers.

As a prelude to the encounter, tractate Ketubot 67b records:

“The extent of his needs . . . (Deut. 15:8) — assist the poor to the extent of his needs. This teaches that you are commanded to support a pauper with his basic needs, but you are not commanded to make him rich. . . . [the verse continues:] whatever he lacks, even if he lacks a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him.”

The point in supplying “whatever he lacks” is that people come to be poor from two different vantage points. A person may always be poor, or, alternatively, a wealthy person may lose his wealth and become poor. In such a case, the Torah says that his dignity requires additional support, since he is accustomed to having more. “A horse and a servant” express the greater need of one who has fallen a greater distance.
These principles serve as an introduction to the following encounter:

A certain pauper came before the sage, Rava, to be fed. Rava asked him, “What are you accustomed to eat?”
“Fattened hen and aged wine.”

Rava: “Are you not concerned about imposing hardship on the community, expecting it to pay for your expensive tastes?”

The pauper: “Am I eating from the resources of the community? I am eating from the resources of the Merciful One! For we have learned in Psalms 145:15: The eyes of all look to You with hope and You give them their food in his time.

“Why does the verse conclude, ‘in his time?’ It should be ‘in their time.’ This teaches that the Holy One, blessed is He, furnishes the provisions for each individual in his time. That is, G-d provides for each person according to what he is accustomed” (Rashi).

Just at this point in the dialogue between Rava and the pauper, Rava’s sister, whom he has not seen in 13 years, appears on the scene. She is bringing a gift for her brother — a fattened hen and aged wine!

Rava exclaims: “Look at this!” Rava turns to the pauper and says, “I said too much when I criticized you. Here, rise, take the fattened hen and aged wine, and eat.”

Rava turns over the gift his sister had brought him and gives it to the pauper.

Who feeds the poor? It is easy to answer: I feed the poor. I give tzedakah. I support the community funds. It is I and my friends who feed the poor. However, according to the encounter between Rava and the pauper, we are but instruments of the Alm-ghty. We are commanded to do our part, to be sure, but the ultimate provider for the poor is the Holy One, blessed is He.

What do the poor deserve? Surely it is not easy to figure out precisely how to provide support for those who have lost their wealth. Communal funds are always limited. But a value and its implementation must, to one degree or another, be held in place: It is not food and shelter that the community provides; it is dignity.

And dignity differs.

Me’iri, one of the commentators on this page of Talmud, draws a distinction: between a wealthy person who has lost his wealth, but this is not yet well known; and between an unfortunate whom everyone knows has lost his wealth. Before the once wealthy person’s plight is known, his dignity is to be preserved “by a horse and a servant,” that is, on a greater scale. But once his plight is known, he is like the rest of the poor and is to be aided accordingly.

Finally, observe: the text which the pauper cites to prove that it is the Holy One Who provides for the poor is a verse in “Ashrei.” This is the heading of a psalm recited twice in the morning prayers and once in the afternoon prayers, seven days a week. Since Ashrei is always with the praying Jew, it can become rote. It is easy not to notice the oddity in its formulation, easy to skip over. Aside from lessons about charity, this Talmudic encounter cautions:

Pay attention to the words you recite in prayer. If they do not add up, ask a question. Seek a wise person. Find an answer. These words may be conveying a lot more than meets the eye.

This Talmudic encounter also cautions: Your exalted teacher of Torah may be a lowly pauper.

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