by Yiftah Leket
Driving to my home in Tel Aviv’s Neve-Zedek neighborhood I would exit via the La Guardia exchange, head on to Yehuda Halevi St, and when I turned onto Herzl St., I reached the small, picturesque streets where I always passed at least 2 or 3 beggars. Many would often say that they probably waste the shekels on items that are bad for them (alcohol, drugs), yet I kept on giving. For me, those few shekels that I dropped in their cups were not so much about money, but rather the opportunity to look into that person’s eyes and say, without words, that he or she is still a human being, and they are worthy of even the smallest of gestures.
Poverty in Israel is a continuous and rising issue. There are two main organizations that measure poverty in Israel. One is an official government agency, The National Insurance Institute and the other is a highly reputable NGO, “Latet”, that researches poverty and food insecurity. Both reports agree on the chilling statistics that more than 20% of households in Israel are poor and that more than a third of all Israeli children live under the poverty line as indicated in the reports.
For me, these statistics are just crazy. Several NGO’s in Israel do remarkable work aiming to reduce the rates of poverty, including “Lehitiv”, based in our Partnership 2Gether region and managed by our own Eviatar Baksis, a former Shaliach in the community. Yet the rates have been rising over the years. The recent numbers from the current pandemic are still inconclusive.
Purim, that funny joyful holiday, asks us to take action related to the poor. One of the Mitzvot, the obligations of Purim, is to give a gift to two poor people, as written in the Book Of Ester: “these were to be days of feasting and joy, of sending gifts to one another and to the poor” (9:22).
The great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, says: “One should rather spend more money on gifts to the poor than on his Purim banquet and presents to his friends. No joy is greater and more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. He who gladdens the heart of these unhappy people imitates God.” (Mishneh Torah, Scroll of Esther and Hanukkah).
But how does that help poverty? Does this just make us feel good about ourselves and create a clean conscious?
Over the past few years, my sister Hadas and I have distributed gifts made by students from the high schools where we taught. We delivered 50 or more “Mishloach Manot” (gift/care packages) to the less fortunate, with the hope that in a small way we, along with our students, would add some joy to their holiday. It was not food we were giving away, but rather the feeling that they are worthy of receiving a gift, and not just basic supplies that they usually receive from different funds and NGO’s. We hoped that we were able to share a message of empathy and understanding and let them feel that they are an integral part of Israeli society, that they are one of us.
I am looking forward for next year, when times will enable it, to find the way to fulfill this important and beautiful Mitzvah.