08/14/2012 08:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17: The Ideal and the Real

We tend to divide the world between idealists and realists, between dreamers and pragmatists. There are those who speak of the world as we wish it were, others who see the world as it is and chart out their life's work on that basis.

In its assessment of poverty and in its mandate to eliminate it, the Torah includes two seemingly contradictory statements fewer than 10 verses apart. In Deuteronomy 15:4 the Torah states, "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..." The Torah proceeds immediately to speak about what to do "if, however, there is a needy person among you." This shift reaches its climax in verse 11: "For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land."

How are we to understand this? There shall be no poverty. There will never cease to be poverty. Perhaps the Torah is trying to cultivate a complex religious personality that is capable of balancing these two aspects, someone who can simultaneously live in the world of the ideal and the real. "There shall be no needy among you" is the guiding statement of someone who can dream big and keep his or her eyes on the prize. "There will never case to be needy ones" is the roadmap for making things happen in less than perfect conditions and understanding that real change is incremental.

Balancing the ideal and the real also allows for an adjustment to an original plan, a midcourse correction and a reassessment based on how a "solution" is being implemented. The sabbatical year with its forgiveness of debts, underscored in this Torah portion (chapter 15), was an attempt to create a system of distributive justice. But the Torah itself sees how its goals might be undermined, and warns against this. "Beware lest you harbor the base thought, 'the seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,' so you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt."

What the Torah saw as a potential distortion of the sabbatical year comes to be realized. Lenders refused to loan money to poor people as this special year of release approached. Once the remission of debts ended up hurting those whom it was intended to help, a new solution needed to be put forward. In order to save the spirit of the law, the rabbis uprooted the letter of law by establishing the prozbul. "When Hillel the Elder saw that people refrained from giving loans to one another, and transgressed what is written in the Torah, 'Beware let you harbor the base thought...' Hillel ordained the prozbul." The prozbul is a "legal fiction" by which people transfer the responsibility for their personal loans to the court. Since the court is not an individual lender, it is permitted to collect repayment during or after the sabbatical year.

The prozbul, in a sense, is an acknowledgment that we cannot live in a world of ideals and aspirations alone. Indeed, it is irresponsible and immoral to do so. The prozbul allows the promise of the sabbatical year's remission of debts to remain on the books, to represent what one day may be possible. But in the meantime, the poor should not bear the burden for the enormous gap that exists between our intensions and our reality. Interim solutions must be found that, while not ideal, allow for greater good.

In his ground-breaking book, "The End of Poverty," Jeffrey Sachs states, "This book is about ending poverty in our time. It is not a forecast. I am not predicting what will happen, only explaining what can happen." Rashi, the preeminent medieval biblical commentator reconciles the two seemingly contradictory verses from our parashah (Torah portion) in this way: "There shall be no needy among you" applies when we do God's will, and "there will never cease to be needy ones in your land" applies when we do not. Perhaps we might understand "God's will" as a process that requires brainpower, creativity, ingenuity and inspiration.

Sachs closes his book with the famous quotation from Robert F. Kennedy: "Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills. ... Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation."

The good life requires of us an ability to live simultaneously in the world of aspirations and in the here and now.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.