As he set forth the laws of debts and loans, Moshe paused to mention a dreamlike future of national prosperity: “Yet, there will be no poor among you,” he said, “Only if you surely heed the voice of Hashem your God, to keep to do all this command that I charge you today” (Devarim 15:4). Surprisingly, though, Moshe followed his lofty vision by addressing an alternate reality: “Should there be a poor person among you,” he began (15:7). He taught about the laws of charity and giving, and stated their importance, “For the pauper will not cease from the midst of the land” (15:11). Moshe was distinguishing between the ideal and the real. He was teaching that ideally, “There will be no poor among you.” In reality, however, “The pauper will not cease.”
In a letter to a student, Rav Kook wrote: “We must see life in two dimensions: as it is and as it should be. Absolute righteousness is always rooted in how things should be, but provisional righteousness, which touches more on acting in the present, is built on how things actually are…The two are connected, like alternating horizons on a long journey.” Life “as it is” presents us with the challenge of striving for and achieving one “as it should be.” Our mission, then, is to transform the “real” into the “ideal.”
Every once in a while, I’m able to appreciate “the ideal” as a source of inspiration and direction in my own life. As a high school teacher, my classroom is best characterized as a “controlled chaos.” Although I attempt to strike the balance between unhindered self-expression and the appropriate structure a learning environment, the “chaos” of my classroom sometimes overwhelms its “control.” It is on such occasions that I trek across the school building and find a seat in the back row of my father’s classroom. I see it as my entrance into the realm of “the ideal,” where I get a glimpse at the act of teaching “as it should be.” And although I know that the full mastery on display in my father’s class is worlds apart from the reality in my own, observing “the ideal” inspires me to continue on the road to its achievement.
The Hakhamim detected a similar dichotomy in the opening section of the Torah. They noted how God is referred to as “Elokim” in the opening line – a name that denotes midat ha-din, or “strict justice.” Later in the creation story, however, He’s referred to as “Hashem Elokim” (Bereshit 2:5) – the additional name referencing midat ha-rahamim, or “mercifulness.” The Rabbis suggested that the “original plan” was to create with the quality of strict justice. Seeing that the world could not survive in that state, He joined it with the quality of mercy. While the initial vision represents an ideal, the second relates to the human world of reality. And by revealing to us that ideal, God shed light on our mission. He was challenging us to couple our vision of life in this world “as it is,” with a healthy perspective of life “as it should be.”
Moshe’s message regarding the poor and unfortunate presents us with a lesson that impacts every facet of our lives. “Yet, there will be no poor among you” tells us to set our eyes on the ideal in every situation that we enter. Although it might be distant from our current reality of “The pauper will not cease,” seeing the ideal marks for us a destination. And that marker will, in turn, infuse every aspect of our lives with deeper meaning and inspiration.