There is a story frequently told about the differences between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai – two wise and scholarly leaders of the early Jewish community. A potential convert comes to both of them stating “If you can teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot, then I’ll become Jewish.” Shammai tells the would-be convert that the task is impossible – it takes a lifetime of study to understand Torah. Hillel, however, states simply “Do not do to others what is hateful to you. All the rest is commentary.”
In truth, Hillel and Shammai are both right. Torah, with its many stories, rules, and teachings, does indeed take an entire lifetime to learn. Each and every year we read the same stories, looking for new insights and meaning. Its breadth and depth of knowledge are infinite. And yet, the Torah can also be summarized in a number of different ways, Hillel’s variation on the Golden Rule being just one of them.
Think about it, if someone asked you to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot what would you say? Would you talk about God? About Mitzvot (commandments)? Would you focus on the moral teachings? The narrative stories? Would you use a quote from the Torah itself or would you come up with something on your own?
The task presented is not an easy one, and it’s one that Moses himself seems to struggle with. At its core, Deuteronomy is a summary of Genesis through Numbers, and within Deuteronomy, Moses takes moments to boil down the summary even further – particularly in Shirat Moshe (Moses’s Song) in Parashat Haazinu.
If you’re looking for it, this week in Parashat Re’eh, we can discover yet another summary. In Deuteronomy 15:4-5 it says: “There shall be no needy among you—since the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed the LORD your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” Now, I’m not saying that all of the Torah is encompassed in the command to listen to God’s voice, that would be a little troubling in our modern practice of Judaism. The summary comes from looking at the ambiguity in the Hebrew: Rak eem shamoa tish-ma b’kol Adonai Elohecha lishmor la’asot et kol mitzvah ha-zot… The way I choose to translate this verse: If you simply listen intently, through the voice of Adonai your God, to protect and do this whole command…
The odd thing here is that it doesn’t say “Do all the commands that Adonai your God has commanded you.” Instead the command here, the mitzvah, is singular. In essence saying, “Do this one thing. Do it completely. And in its doing, you’ll find blessing” What is the command? “There shall be no needy among you.”
How many of our 613 commandments have this idea at their core? Leave 10% of your field unharvested – so that those who are hungry have something to eat. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt – so that you remember what it felt like and ensure that no one has to go through the same. Love your neighbor as yourself – take care of those around you with as much diligence as you care for yourself. Observe a day of rest – all people deserve to have their basic and their spiritual needs met. Bring sacrifices and offerings to God – and the people who receive them will use those offerings, in turn, to care for others.
Our stories, our teachings, our actions – all of them point to this one idea: There shall be no needy among you.
But this is not a prophecy. It is not a divine promise that allows us to sit back and passively wait for the day when all have what they need. Rather, it is a command. Just a few verses later Moses reminds us (Deut. 15:11) “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land…” There will always be work to do, this command will always exist and there will never be a time when we say to ourselves that we’ve done “good enough” – in part, because working to address the needs of the vulnerable, the needs of the weak, the needs of the impoverished, is core to who we are as Jews.
Tzedakah (justice and charity), gimilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) are eternal tasks and are the way we make our human mark on the divine gift that is creation. Yes, the world is imperfect and broken. But it is that imperfection that gives us our purpose – there shall be no needy among you.