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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How can a society deal with unexplained death? In our society, we make a tremendous effort to find the guilty party. But in Biblical society, the response was different. Although the elders proclaim that they "did not shed this blood," it is clear that the community felt some guilt; otherwise, why would there be such an elaborate ritual for expiating the sin? The Mishnah, the first document of rabbinic law, explains the nature of the community's guilt:

"The elders of that city wash their hands in the place of the breaking of the neck of the cow and say:  Our hands have not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see.  Would it ever occur to us that the elders of the court were murderers?  Rather, [they are saying:] 'he did not come to us, and we let him go without food; we did not see and we let him go without accompaniment.'" (Mishnah Sotah 9:6)

Leaders Must Accept Blame for Omissions

Rather than escape from responsibility or blaming the death on someone else, the elders of the town are commanded to acknowledge their own share of the guilt through their own acts of omission. "We let him go without food…we let him go without accompaniment." Later commentators explain that leaders of the town might have been negligent both with respect to the murderer and with the victim. The one who was let go without food was driven to kill out of his desperate hunger, and the one who traveled without accompaniment was slain. Responsible leadership looks for the opportunities to intervene in order to prevent tragedy.

The parable of the load of the donkey presents a practical motivation for preventive tzedakah -- help before the burden becomes too great to bear. The law of the beheaded heifer presents an ethical motivation -- ultimately, the consequences of failure to prevent people from falling into desperate situations are the responsibility of the community as a  whole.

The challenges of preventive tzedakah are great. Three present themselves right away: How can one balance between the immediate and the long-term need? How can one dedicate resources to "preventions" that may not prevent anything? How can one set any kind of limit on the needs of prevention?

The Heifer Ritual--Where the Buck Stopped?

And this case of the beheaded heifer illustrates a fourth challenge. Immediate needs are usually apparent, and the needy will often ask an individual for help. That person is immediately obligated to provide what s/he can. Where is the address, who has the accountability for preventive tzedakah? According to the Mishnah's reading of Deuteronomy, the elders took responsibility, but in truth, Deuteronomy has the elders claiming their innocence.

With all of these challenges standing against engaging in preventive tzedakah, and with the ongoing needs of the desperately poor, how will a society ever bring itself to take a long-term view of the plight of the most vulnerable?

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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.