Jewish Thought

Why Are There Poor People?

The Torah says: “There will not cease to be amongst you poor people in the land.” (Deuteronomy 15, 11) Our Creator commanded us to give charity to the poor and gifts to the destitute and promises us that in the merit of this charity “the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your deeds and endeavors”. (ibid, 15, 10) The question is why G-d made His world so it would have poor needy people in it?

Poverty and need are endemic to an imperfect world where there is sin and lacking. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, G-d took care of all their needs. The Talmud states: “Adam was reclining in the garden of Eden and angel were broiling meat and decanting wine for him”. (Sanhedrin 59b)

However, when Adam left the Garden of Eden he entered a world of lack, with sustenance coming only through difficulty. Sin was always close by to cause him to stumble as the verse says: “At the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” (Genesis  4, 7). Kabbalah teaches us that sins people have done and not repaired causes them to come back to this world to repair what they damaged and the test of poverty purifies their soul. G-d works measure for measure with man. People with natural beauty who became haughty and conceited or they embarrassed people less beautiful than them, are liable to come back to the world less beautiful. Wealthy people who became haughty and conceited from their wealth, or they weren’t compassionate with the poor, or they sinned in money matters are liable to come back as a poor person in order to repair the damage their sin caused their soul. This is a very difficult test as it includes not only lack but also the accompanying embarrassment.

G-d in his Torah exhorts us saying that one who doesn’t have compassion on the orphan and the widow might end up in their shoes: “Do not cause pain to the widow or orphan, for if he shouts I will hear his shouts and I will be angered and I will smite you with the sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans” (Exodus 22, 21). G-d gave us compassion on the unfortunate and gave us the Commandment of charity so that we should have mercy and help them. This is our obligation.

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G-d decrees poverty on a person to help repair their souls. Their fate was already established before coming into the world as the Talmud states: Rabbi Chanina Bar Papa would explain, the angel appointed on pregnancy his name is “Laila” (Night). The angel takes the conceived seed and brings it before G-d and asks “What will be with this drop? Will he be strong or weak, smart or dull, wealthy or poor?”  But he doesn’t ask “will he be righteous or evil?” (Nidda 16b)

There are people who look at other people’s success and ask “why didn’t we merit wealth” or “why is it decreed that my livelihood should come with difficulty and my neighbor has it easy?” The truth is that everyone has a personal accounting with G-d dependent on his deeds from his previous lives and what he still needs to come to this world to repair. A decree for one person doesn’t apply to the next, his accounting is different and he came from a place different from yours. We need to remember the rule: “G-d does not begrudge the reward coming to any creation” (Baba Kama 38b) and everything is in the end designed to be for our benefit in order for G-d to grant us good in the next world.

So it’s important to remember this point, that difficulties in livelihood were established for the soul before he even came down into the world. The only thing not established is whether a person will be righteous or evil for that is up to the free choice of man. But eventhough everything is decreed beforehand in heaven still G-d enables us to attain additional bounty from Him beyond what we deserve. This is the strength of prayers and faith in G-d. “ There are many afflictions for the evil but the one who has faith in G-d will be surrounded by kindness” (Psalms 32, 10).

G-d gave us the possibility to pray to Him about our situation, to repent and to do charity and through them to “sweeten” decrees that were decreed upon us before our coming to the world, even harsh decrees.

In this vein our sages taught: “Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove the evil decree. And our sages said; “Charity saves from death” (Shabbat 156b). The Talmud has many stories of people who were destined to die young because it was decreed before coming into the world but in merit of their charity they were spared. For example: the daughter of Rabbi Akiva was supposed to die on her wedding day. But G-d had a poor man come to the wedding hall.The other guests were preoccupied but she saw him from far and gave him her portion of the wedding meal! The next morning it was found that she stuck her hairpin through a poisonous snake and into the wall next to her bed. That would have killed her the night before.

The ability to do kindness with the needy is a mighty merit that can break harsh decrees. The Talmud states the reason for this: “Someone, who has compassion on His creations, will merit compassion from heaven. Whoever has no compassion for His creations will merit no compassion from heaven” (Shabbat 151b).

As mentioned, G-d works with this world “measure for measure”. Therefore the Torah guides us to help the poor generously. “You shall open your hand for him and lend him as much as he lacks” (Deuteronomy 15, 9). Not only that, but the Torah requires we give the poor happily with a smiling countenance. “You shall surely give him and your heart shouldn’t feel bad when giving him” (ibid 15, 10). In this merit the Torah promises us: “For because of this the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your deeds and endeavors”. The King of the world promises us that anyone who gives charity will find his situation improving.  Charity is a great merit that can sweeten decrees and break harsh decrees.


Until the final redemption there will always be a state of sin and forgiveness in the world. For this reason it says: “For there will never cease to be needy within the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land.”(Deuteronomy 15, 11) G-d wants to do kindness with the poor man through us and appointed us messengers to do this commandment. He gave us the merit to be kind to the world and ourselves through developing our compassion. G-d is compassionate and in merit of His compassion we merit to strive and be compassionate like Him and to come close to Him.

I heard a shocking story of an evil non-Jew who went down the street and saw a poor woman asking for charity. He asked her “If G-d has no compassion on you, why should I?” And he left. In his cruelty he refused to understand that he is obligated to give her and with his evil heart he harmed only himself. G-d runs the world and He will get the poor the money they should have received. But the wealthy one lost the merit of the mitzvah that he could have earned. It is for this reason that Rabbis often thank the poor for giving them the opportunity to give charity to them!

On Purim we are commanded to give two poor people gifts. In fulfilling this commandment we thank G-d for saving us from Haman’s decree of destruction and acknowledge all the good that G-d bestows on us always. For after all, the truth needs to be told; our money and livelihood don’t at all belong to us. They are given to us as a deposit from G-d, who appointed us messengers to carry out His will. We are all guests at His table and everything we have was given to us as charity and kindness from G-d. So “give him from what is His, for you and your belongings are His” (Chapters of the Fathers 3, 7).


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