One day Nasrudin was out walking and found a man sitting on the side of the road crying.
‘What is the matter, my friend?’ asked Nasrudin. ‘Why are you crying?’
‘I’m crying because I am so poor,’ wailed the man. ‘I have no money and everything I own is in this little bag.’
‘Ah-ha!,’ said Nasrudin, who immediately grabbed the bag and ran as fast as he could until he was out of sight.
‘Now I have nothing at all,’ cried the poor man, weeping still harder as he trudged along the road in the direction Nasrudin had gone. A mile away he found his bag sitting in the middle of the road, and he immediately became ecstatic. ‘Thank God,’ he cried out. ‘I have all my possessions back. Thank you, thank you.’
‘How curious!’ exclaimed Nasrudin, appearing out of the bushes by the side of the road. “How curious that the same bag that made you weep now makes you ecstatic.'”
This story makes the case that our emotional responses are based on our expectations. At first the man looked at his possessions and saw what he lacked, whereas afterwards he saw them as a boon. As we dig into this story, let’s think for a moment about poverty.
Economists distinguish between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is lacking the minimum amounts of food, clothing and shelter necessary for survival. For such a person, life is balanced on a razor’s edge. Relative poverty means lacking enough money to support the average standard of living in a society. Relative poverty changes as a society becomes more prosperous. For example, the average American standard of living in 1900 is below the poverty threshold of 2000.
Consider how standards of living have changed over the centuries. The average lifespan of Europeans who survived childhood 1,000 years ago was less than 35 years. In 1900, the average American could expect to live only 49 years, but people in many developed economies now typically live well into their 70s because of advances in nutrition and medicine. Polio, cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, and leprosy are now extinct or quite rare in developed economies. Canning and refrigeration make it possible to store food for long periods, and the globalization of commerce has enriched diets throughout the world. Even the nobility of medieval times did not have access to things that many Americans who are classified as poverty-stricken take for granted: aspirin, fast-food restaurants, telephones, running water, automobiles, electric lighting, indoor plumbing, garbage collection, paved roads, public education and transportation, antibiotics, grocery stores, “painless” dentistry, television, and central heating for their homes…
None of this should be taken to mean that everyone is doing well. Those who don’t have a roof over their heads and enough money to meet their basic food and clothing needs live truly awful lives.
For those who are unable to work and live on welfare and food stamps, life certainly isn’t great, but it is at least physically tolerable. Yet even the most basic healthcare, clothing, warmth and shelter today far outstrips that of several hundred years ago.
Poor Americans do not have a soft life. Wealth and income ultimately provide their holders with freedom, power, and deference from others. Poor people have relatively less power and fewer choices in life. There is no doubt that the most destitute people in our society are often homeless, cold, and hungry. Yet poverty is in part determined by cultural expectations.
A friend of mine spent some time living in Nepal. Out of the countries across the world, Nepal is ranked as the 157th country in terms of human development. To give you some sense of what that means – there are only 186 countries on the index! From his time living there in urban as well as rural settings, he was delighted by the hospitality he was shown and impressed that the people there were largely happy and contented. Yet in rural Nepal he said, people would call you middle-class if you had a table, let alone chairs.
In our parashah, we are given two perspectives on poverty. One of the institutions introduced was the sabbatical (shemitta) year, like a year-long Sabbath practiced once every seven years (Deut 15:1). The law had two main observances. The first, that the ancient Israelites were forbidden from growing food that year and had to subsist on stores. The second was that all debts be wiped out.
Now… as you’ve already realized… wiping out all debts once every seven years is liable to make lenders a little uneasy. Yet, the Torah insists that: “There will be no poor among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land.”
Strangely, just a few verses later, the Torah concludes its discussion by saying “there will never cease to be poor on the earth, I therefore command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”
How can the Torah say that “there will be no poor among you” at the same time as saying “there will never cease to be poor on the earth.” Perhaps the contrast is intended to be of ideals and gritty reality. I’d like to propose a different interpretation.
Perhaps the Torah’s ideal isn’t that every person becomes rich, but rather to say that in a society in which the basic emotional and physical needs of every person are met, those people no longer see themselves as poor.
Lastly, I want to share with you a passage of Jewish law about poverty and charity, it is here codified by Maimonides, the 12th century philosopher and lawyer. Based on the Talmud he says that if a formerly wealthy man becomes poor, the community are obligated to restore him his principle trappings of wealth, such as a horse and a crier.
Here, a man feels impoverished and it is incumbent upon the community to help him accustom himself to his new situation. Here, it is the feeling of poverty that we are asked to ameliorate.
In truth, I have not come here today to talk about the poor. I have no idea what it is like to live below the poverty line or on the streets. What I have come here to say is that, often, when we encounter difficult situations in life, we can choose our attitude.
 Quoted in Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality, John Wiley & Sons (1999).