Pesach's Socialist Message

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  What might this phrase, a slogan usually associated with Karl Marx, albeit with much older antecedents[1], have to due to Pesach?

Socialism/communism’s fundamental goal was to ensure that society meet everyone’s basic needs (food, medical care, housing, education, etc.).  That is, the eradication of poverty.  It viewed economic class distinctions as the source of poverty and of its many associated societal and individual ills.

We don't think of the Torah as a "socialist" or "communist" document, and it certainly does not discourage individual wealth accumulation.  Yet, this theme is also plainly reflected in this Shabbat’s special reading for the last day of Pesach. We read that all debts are to be cancelled every seventh year so that “there shall be no needy among you.”  

To further ensure this end, the Torah continues “If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.”  (Deuteronomy 15:1-8)

Why did our sages assign this reading to Pesach, and how did they interpret “sufficient for whatever he needs?” 

Liberation -- Pesach’s essential theme -- refers to more than freedom from slavery (though many people throughout the world still lack even this).  And it requires more than money.  It means having one’s needs met, whatever they may be.

In most cases, we associate the obligation to give tzedakah as the giving of money.  This is usually adequate because food, medicine, clothes, and even personal caretaking services can be acquired with money.  But the rabbi’s interpreted “sufficient for whatever he needs” to include emotional and psychological needs as well, including the need for dignity.  This need varies greatly by individual and circumstances.   

Maimonides gives us the example of a formerly rich person who lost his money and can no longer afford his own means of transportation (then, a horse).  Since it is more humiliating for him to walk than one who never owned a horse, we are obligated to provide him a “horse,” albeit not necessarily the thoroughbred to which he was formerly accustomed. (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:3).

Another aspect of “dignity” is how we give a person what he or she needs.  Do we offer financial help as a “loan” if that would help preserve self-respect?  Do we offer help privately rather than publicly?  Do we offer help before the need becomes dire?  Do we offer to accept a service (that we actually don’t need) or to buy an item (that we don’t want) in exchange for our help/money, so that the recipient need not feel a “charity case?” 

When we want to give a gift to someone we love, we think about what would provide them the greatest pleasure. When we wish to meet someone’s needs, we should similarly think about – or ask – what they lack that may be most important to them. It may be something quite different than we realize.  And whatever we give, we should think about the manner in which that individual may “need” to have our assistance offered.

Pesach is almost over, but its lesson of helping to liberate another “according to his needs” continues.   

[For much fuller discussion of these and many other examples, see Telushkin, Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol 2., Chapters 12-20).

Shabbat shalom! 


]1[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_each_according_to_his_ability,_to_each_according_to_his_needs

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