Helping the Poor One Relationship at a Time
We recently became a host congregation for our local Family Promise affiliate, Greenville Area Interfaith Hospitality Network. Our involvement with an interfaith hospitality network has afforded our congregation the meaningful opportunity to fulfill our mission to bring justice to the world by providing food and shelter to the homeless. Almost as important as providing these families with food and shelter this project has allowed us to create real relationships with families in need of support. I have had the honor of sitting and sharing dinner with numerous people hearing about how they have found themselves homeless.
By speaking with our guests, we are able to recognize that the issue of homelessness and poverty are not statistics we read about; these are issues that are affecting real human beings who are experiencing great suffering. Once we are able to recognize the human experience of homelessness and poverty, then we are able to affirm the inherent dignity of each person coming to stay in our congregation. In addition to requiring material support for the poor, the laws about tzedakah are very concerned with preserving the dignity of the poor. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8 we are told, “do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” Jewish law interprets this verse to mean, “If he is hungry, feed him. If he needs clothes, clothe him. But if he is used to riding on a horse with a servant running in front of him, provide this for him.” (S.A., Y.D. 250:1) The first two issues are concerned with basic material needs, but the third has to do with a person’s sense of self-worth. If a person is used to a certain standard of living, Jewish law recognizes that it is extremely painful to have to lower that standard. We must be concerned with providing the basic necessities to the poor, but we also must affirm the basic human dignity of the poor.
Focusing upon the humanity of the poor can then inspire us to advocate in support of their needs. Ensuring that there is sufficient affordable housing, that the minimum wage increases, that federal anti-poverty programs are protected are not just issues of economic policy, these are moral issues that affect the dignity of millions of individuals. The mitzvah of tzedakah requires us to use compassion in our interactions with the poor and that compassion begins with creating real relationships with families in need.