White Donkeys and the Perfect Poverty

חגיגה ט:

א”ל אליהו לבר הי הי וא”ל לר’ אלעזר מאי דכתיב הנה צרפתיך ולא בכסף בחרתיך בכור עוני מלמד שחזר הקב”ה על כל מדות טובות ליתן לישראל ולא מצא אלא עניות אמר שמואל ואיתימא רב יוסף היינו דאמרי אינשי יאה עניותא ליהודאי כי ברזא סומקא לסוסיא חיורא

Eliyahu (yes, Elijah himself, of II Kings 2:11 fame) said to the mishnaic rabbi known as Bar Hey Hey, and some say it was said to Rabbi Eliezer: why is it written (Isaiah 48:10) “Behold, I refined you, but not with silver, I chose for you the furnace of poverty”? This teaches that God searched through all the finest qualities to find the perfect gift for Israel and found none more appropriate than poverty. Shmuel, and some say Rav Yosef, said: “That is just as people say: poverty is as appropriate for the Jews as a red harness for a white horse.” (Talmud Chagiga 9b)

Why would Eliyahu (whose every appearance, after all, requires a miracle) go to the bother of supplying us with his special interpretation? One would imagine that the rabbis generally had their own approaches to understanding Biblical verses without having to rely on heavenly help. In fact, I believe that there is not a single comparable example in the entire Talmud.

And once Eliyahu himself has already taught us this idea, why must we be told that, among “the people” the idea has its own popular slang expression? Repeating the same thing from such a mundane source seems not only redundant, but insulting! And just who were these “people” anyway?

What precisely is it about red harnesses that suits white horses so well?

I don’t know about you, but after having both read and considered this passage, I can say in all honesty that, besides having some vague impression about poverty being good, I really didn’t initially have a clue about what’s going on. Yet it’s unthinkable that the rabbis would have presented us with such obscure words, but not the tools to understand them. So let’s see if there isn’t something more that will help.

Before that, though, we’ll rephrase our first question. Let’s not ask “why did we need Eliyahu himself to explain Isaiah’s words?” but instead “what is it about this verse that makes the interpretations of mere mortal human beings inadequate?” This question pays for itself as it suggests its own answer: our verse must be so deeply ambiguous that even great sages couldn’t help but be misled. This verse needs Eliyahu’s input! Why? What is it that’s so misleading?

We really should seek a bit more context. Here are the verses leading up to the one quoted by the Talmud:

You also have not listened and you also did not know, even then you did not open your ears, for I knew you would rebel and a “rebel from the womb” you would be called. For (the sake of) My own Name I will be patient and for My own praise will I hold back and not destroy you. Behold, I refined you, but not with silver, I chose for you the furnace of poverty.” (Isaiah 48:8-10)

This does seem to place things in a different light. In their simple reading, the first two verses express God’s frustration with our historic behavior. With little chance for quick recovery, He nevertheless remains patient – though for His own purposes, rather than ours. Perhaps that’s because, after all the many promises we’ve received from Him, our sudden destruction would inspire some observers – especially non-Jewish observers – to mockingly accuse God of weakness or even dishonesty. So rather than destroy us, God will force us into line through the “furnace of poverty.” Is Divinely enforced Torah observance the best way? Of course not. Do we personally stand to gain anything from it? Perhaps not so much. But God’s needs will be met.

Now how is Eliyahu’s interpretation different? Remember: Eliyahu describes what God sought as a “fine quality” as a gift “for” Israel. Not only does it meet God’s needs, but ours too! Poverty, in the right measure and at the right time is indeed good for us.

I’d say it’s time for a bit of a break. Let’s skip ahead to the horses and harnesses from the Talmud’s popular expression.

How is a harness good for its horse? Offered a choice, I suppose the horse would rather avoid the whole business. But we believe that horses (along with cows, chickens and African marsh mongooses) were each created for a higher purpose. By and large, horses exist to serve humans. And the sharpest symbol of that service – of their fulfillment of God’s plan for them – is the harness. Therefore, regardless of any personal preference a particular horse might have, his harness represents fidelity to purpose. And, I suppose, red-on-white does so in the most striking, visible way.

What does all this add to our self-perception as human beings and as Jews? Perhaps that if we Jews aren’t conscious enough of our duties to God, Divinely-imposed poverty – with all its powerful and positive consequences – could well serve as a “red harness” in symbolic reminder of our higher purpose.

Now, what about those people among whom this was such common knowledge…just who were they? I believe the answer to that question lies in their choice of words: “poverty is as appropriate for the Jews…” The Aramaic word for “Jews” (יהודאי) is, throughout the Talmud, used exclusively by Gentiles. Apparently Jews didn’t use that expression to describe themselves. Its use here would therefore suggest that the “people” of our passage are themselves non-Jews.

Well, now the statement itself has all the significance it needs. Not only have we learned about the many positive benefits poverty can offer us, but the non-Jewish world understands it too, and that’s nearly as important. Because if the Jews are poor and that poverty is widely perceived as Divine punishment, then, as we described above, God’s reputation could suffer. People might well assume that He is unable to convince even His own nation to follow His laws and that, consequently, he has no choice but to effectively remove their free will and apply force.

The fact that specifically this expression is popular – and specifically among non-Jews – tells us that God has already ensured that there will be no confusion in the matter. Everyone will understand what is at stake, who is at fault and Who is really in charge.

A couple of smaller problems:

The phrase “fine quality” (“מדה טובה”) is today most commonly understood in terms of human character. Poverty, on the other hand, being a state that effects a person, rather than his defining quality, could hardly be used to describe a quality. So why did the Talmud use this term to describe poverty?

I think that the common usage of the word quality (“מדה”) has evolved over the centuries. In its classical form (Based on the observations of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch), the word would seem most closely related to מדד (to measure somethings true size – a verb) or תמיד (an adjective that describes the permanent quality of a relationship). מדה is recognizably the noun form of those words (as in “the measure alloted to a person”). In our modern use, We have simply expanded the noun’s range to include character qualities. But it’s original meaning (which could very comfortably encompass “poverty”) hasn’t gone anywhere.

If God indeed found such a fine gift for us, one would assume He then gave it to us. So why have there always been at least some Jews of financial means?

Poverty is a very fine gift. But not every gift is equally appropriate for everyone’s birthday party. We can be sure that God has always given us the gift of poverty whenever it has been necessary. If however we independently rise to face our spiritual challenges and fulfill the Torah’s expectations for us, then we won’t have any need for the kinds of external reminders that poverty can provide.

That would seem the best route.

We should add that there’s poverty and then there’s poverty. One Talmudic commentator (the Eitz Yosef) wrote that there isn’t necessarily any religious benefit in severe financial hardship. The useful poverty that’s discussed by the passage we’ve been studying involves people who have all their very basic needs within reach but might lack luxuries, a savings cushion or a social safety net for harder times.

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