Preventing Dependency

"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." How many fish do we buy, and how many nets?

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Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7

It is clear from the reference to Leviticus 25:35 that Maimonides is thinking about the parable of steadying the burden on the donkey before it falls off. At the same time, Maimonides implicitly acknowledges the inherent tension in preventive tzedakah by making this approach only one of the eight levels. All of the other seven levels apparently deal with direct aid to those in current need.

Preventive Tzedakah: No Sure Payoff

The issue of limited resources is, however, not the only serious challenge to engaging in preventive tzedakah. Preventive tzedakah -- that is, allocating resources in order to prevent someone becoming destitute, in order to avert dependency, in order to solve a problem before it becomes too great -- is risky. Investing in training programs or in medical research sounds like a great idea, but frequently the investments yield no real benefit. Preventive tzedakah means acting without any assurance that one's resources are doing anything truly useful.

And yet, there is still another problem with preventive tzedakah that dwarfs either of the other two.  Although we are enjoined to meet the needs of the poor, we are also told that giving 10% is an average contribution and that 20% is the upper limit for giving (except for the extremely wealthy and for gifts from one's estate). There is, in the end, a limit to one's responsibility. But with preventive tzedakah, how is one ever able to set limits to one's responsibility?

Maimonides talks about job creation, but training must precede a job. General education precedes training. And a child who is unhealthy cannot learn, so pediatric health care is also a basic form of prevention. At every step, we can imagine how greater resources might make the next step more effective and more cost effective. Some countries, such as Sweden, seem to maintain this kind of long-term vision, but most countries, sadly do not. How can a society learn to allocate resources for both the short term and the long term?

How Can We Focus on Long-term Solutions?

Rabbinic commentary on a strange passage in Deuteronomy may provide some direction.

"If… a corpse is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an overflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer's neck. …Then the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done." (Deuteronomy 21:1-4, 6-7)

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.