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Poverty Is a State of Mind

Poverty is a state of mind. It has been observed that the poor in the United States have far more income and material wealth than middle income people in developing countries. Yet the poor in the U.S. lag behind the middle class in poorer countries on measures such as education, health, and subjective well-being. These findings lead us to conclude that the amount of “stuff” you own has relatively little impact on well-being. Access to opportunity is a better marker for how well-off a society is.

Our sages say, “There is no concept of wealth other than knowledge.” In the Torah we find that in ancient Israel, farmers were obligated to set aside a corner of their fields for the poor. However, in the seventh year, Shemittah, all farmers were obligated to let their land lay fallow. In those years, where did the poor gather their produce?

There were two tribes, Reuven and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, who settled on the eastern bank of the Jordan, in the lands of Ammon and Moab. Since this land was not of the same sanctity as the land of Israel, the restrictions of Shemittah did not apply. However, the farmers were obligated to set aside maaser ani, tithes of the poor, to sustain the poor of Israel during that year.

What motivated these two tribes to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan, not in Israel proper like the other tribes? The Torah states that they had much cattle, and the pasture was better in that area. Chassidic teachings explain that they wished to live a simpler, more pastoral life tending to their animals, rather than engaging in hard physical agricultural labor. In this way they would have more opportunity to study Torah in peace, similar to the lifestyle they had enjoyed in the desert.

Initially, G-d promised Abraham his children would inherit the land of ten nations: seven inside the borders of Israel, and three, the Keini, Knizi and Kadmoni, that lived on the eastern shore of the Jordan. These three nations are also known as Moav, Ammon and Edom. We have conquered seven of those nations, but we have not yet taken possession of the final three. The two and a half tribes, by settling on the eastern shore, began the process, but it will not be completed until the days of Moshiach.

Chassidic teachings also explain that the seven nations correspond to seven emotional attributes, while the three nations correspond to the three intellectual attributes: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Now, in exile, our work is to perfect our emotional character traits. Our intellect will not be fully refined until the era of Moshiach.

And this is the meaning of the two and a half tribes sustaining the rest in the seventh year. Those who are “poor” – intellectually speaking – would go to seek inspiration and guidance from those on the eastern side, who had already begun the process of refining and elevating their intellect. They were leading the way in preparing the land for the days of Moshiach, when all forms of poverty will be eradicated, material, intellectual and spiritual, and all of us will dwell securely in our land.

(Adapted from Sefer Hasichot 5750, pp. 541-553)


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