It was another one of those park bench discussions. I hadn't seen my old friend Eli for quite some time. We would run into each other every couple of years, not because we planned it, but because we lived in the same city.
We both loved to take long walks, and the frequency with which our paths crossed constantly amazed us. We also both enjoyed long talks, and the beginnings of some of those discussions went back to our sophomore year in high school.
Eli was a self-described utopian. He had a clear picture in his mind of what an ideal world would look like. Although I too am somewhat of a utopian, compared to my old friend I am a hardnosed realist.
Many of our past discussions were concerned with what we both believed was the unfair distribution of wealth in the world. Personally, we were both acquainted with stupendously wealthy individuals. We also had mutual friends who were totally destitute.
Our most recent chance encounter found us reviving that old familiar topic. The news media that particular day were bemoaning the widening gap in the United States and many other countries between the very rich and the very poor.
Lo and behold, almost simultaneously, we were quoting chapter and verse from this week's Torah portion, Parshat Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). Ironically, each of us found a proof text to support our positions about societal ideals and social reality.
Eli had served for many years as the Torah reader, or baal koreh, in his synagogue. He had no trouble precisely recalling the following verse, and even chanting it aloud for all in the park to hear: "There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day." (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)
Eli thumped his hand down on the park bench triumphantly. "Clearly, the Torah envisions a world in which there are no poor people. That is unarguably the Torah's ideal."
I could not resist the temptation of reminding my good friend that he had used that very text so long ago when we were both members of our high school debate team. He argued the cause of socialism while my duty was to defend capitalism. We had both outgrown the simple assumptions of adolescence, and, at this point in life, Eli was no socialist.
But he still nurtured a penchant for an ideal world, a world without man-made discrimination.
I did not have to look very far for a verse which countered Eli's source. Although it has been very many years since I served as a regular Torah reader in the synagogues I attend, I had sufficient experience as a baal koreh in years gone by to attach the traditional mellifluous chant to the words: "Give to him readily… For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land." (Deuteronomy 15:10-11)
After all these years, we both must have reached a new level of maturity, for we soon decided that to continue debating the issues of idealism versus realism would be pointless at our age. I granted him that we were indeed encouraged by the Torah to try as best we could to construct, if not a perfect world, then a vastly improved one. If we could not achieve the ideal of "there shall be no needy among you," we could at least "open our hands" to those who were needy.
And Eli conceded that until we can attain an ideal world in which there are no needy, we had better scrupulously follow the Torah's urgent plea that we "open our hands" to those who seem to "never cease to be needy." "Until we achieve the ideal," concluded Eli, "we had better face the reality and be fervently charitable."
We parted ways, and were each fairly certain that it would be a while until chance brought us together once again to revive old arguments on a common park bench. Was I in for a surprise!
The very next evening I received a rare telephone call from an unusually excited Eli. He opened the conversation by exclaiming loudly that he had discovered a story that he had to share with me.
It seems that he had come across a relatively new book, in Hebrew, on the weekly Torah portions. It was simply entitled Perashot, Portions, and subtitled "A New Look at the Portions of the Week". The author, Chaim Navon, compiled the book from the weekly columns he had written for the Israeli newspaper, Makor Rishon.
Eli was particularly impressed by an old story that neither of us had heard before.
It was back in the early years of the 20th century when extreme socialism was in vogue and many believed that it would be the new world order. An old socialist leader was walking along the street with one of his devoted disciples. They passed a beggar pleading for alms. The master walked right by the poor man, but the disciple paused and gave him a few pennies.
How shocked was the disciple when his master reprimanded him severely and called him a traitor to the cause.
The disciple objected, "All I did was help a poor person! Did you not teach us about the plight of the poverty-stricken worker?"
The master replied, "We are expecting the revolution, which will be a comprehensive and absolute solution to the problem of poverty. By relieving this man and his desperation for even a moment, you were providing a temporary solution to his situation. That will delay and postpone the ultimate Revolution."
I was deeply impressed by this story and thanked Eli for sharing it with me. We spoke a little bit further about it, and came to the following conclusion:
It is natural for humans to desire perfection. But they cannot allow that desire to get in the way of dealing with the ugly realities of life.
This week's Torah portion, in verses which are separated by a few mere lines, drives home this important point. We must strive with all our might for a society in which poverty (and for that matter, all forms of human misery) is eliminated. But in our striving we cannot lose sight of the realities. Poverty exists and we must ameliorate it. We must expect that at every step along the way to the ideal world which we are commanded to create, there will be pressing problems that must be addressed immediately, even if that means that the long-term larger goals must be temporarily postponed.
A lesson for the ages, and a lesson for today!