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How Should We Respond to Human Need?

אַ֭שְׁרֵי מַשְׂכִּ֣יל אֶל־דָּ֑ל

Happy is the one who is maskil to the person in need… (Psalms 41:2)

[Maskil: from a root meaning to be prudent, look at, give attention to, have insight or understanding.]

In the time when Rabbi Yonah taught on this verse, the conventional wisdom of what it meant was most likely: “Happy is the one who gives to the person in need.” The meaning of the verb maskil in this sentence is not clear, however. This ambiguity provides an opportunity for Rabbi Yonah to teach something different about the nature of our relationship to a person or people in need.

We don’t know whether the three teachings below, all attributed to Rabbi Yonah and each from a different source, reflect three distinct ideas from Rabbi Yonah or three differing transmissions of the same teaching.

TEXT #1:

 אמר רבי יונה “אשרי נותן לדל” אין כתיב כאן אלא “אשרי משכיל אל דל זה” שהוא מסתכל במצוה היאך לעשותה

Rabbi Yonah said: “Happy is the one who gives to the person in need” is not what the verse says, but rather, “Happy is the one who is maskil to the person in need,” meaning, one must examine/look into the mitzvah in order to know how to do it. (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 8:8 [3:33a])

Questions:

  • What is the distinction Rabbi Yonah is making between giving to a person (or people) in need, and “examining the mitzvah”?
  • What kinds of things beyond or different than “giving” might be implied by this kind of “looking into” the situation?

TEXT #2:

״אשרי משכיל אל דל״ אמר רבי יונה אשרי מי שהוא משכיל עליו לההנותו.

“Happy is the one who is maskil to the person in need.” Rabbi Yonah said: Happy is the one who is maskil and gives to the person in need. What does maskil mean [in this case]? It is the one who pays close attention to the poor person [and then] considers how to bring him [the poor person] to life. (Midrash Rabbah on Psalms 41:2)

Questions:

  • In this text, the word for giving life is used (lehakhiyoto). This might refer to life itself, and/or livelihood. What are the different aspects of allowing someone to “live” that Rabbi Yonah might be referring to here?
  • What does this statement imply about the kinds of action we should take in response to poverty or other kinds of hardship?
  • How might this text relate to the pitfalls that so often plague relief operations?

TEXT #3:

  אמר ר’ יונה: ״אשרי נותן לדל״ אין כתיב כאן, אלא ״אשרי משכיל אל דל״ הוי, מסתכל בו היאך לזכות בו

Rabbi Yonah said: “Happy is the one who gives to the person in need” is not what the verse says, but rather, “Happy is the one who is maskil to the person in need,” meaning, s/he should look at the person [and consider] how one can achieve merit through [helping] him.

(Leviticus Rabbah 34:1, Margoliot 4:773)

Questions:

Discussion questions:

  • There is a traditional Jewish belief that one who gives another person tzedekah achieves “merit”—either some kind of reward in this life or eternal life in the world to come. What are the spiritual (and other) rewards of helping people in need?
  • What should our own self-interest be (as individuals or as a community) when we plan actions to address the hardships faces by others?
    • Looking at all three texts together, what are the different things a congregation should consider in taking action to address issues like poverty?
    • What issues do you feel are not addressed by these texts? How would you define “maskil” in relation to those in need? How can a congregation be maskil in its planning and implementation of social justice activities?

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