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Is Poverty Good?

Is Poverty Good?

Are Red Straps Good for Horses?

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Recently, the conversation around our Shabbat table centered on the economic situation, and, of course, how it would affect us personally. Someone posed the question whether human nature is to be kinder in times of need or in times of plenty.

Later that evening, it occurred to me that perhaps the answer to this question lies in a puzzling Talmudic statement (Chagigah 9b): "Poverty befits the Jews like a red strap on a white horse." Quite a strange statement! Of all the aesthetically appealing things in the world, why compare poverty to a strap on a horse?

And even more puzzling: Why is poverty "befitting" Jews? What is good about being poor?

Challenging times cause us to take a step backHere's the explanation I came up with. There is nothing especially beautiful about a red strap. It is just a painted thong made of animal hide. Its presence, however, highlights the contours and beauty of a truly majestic animal. A properly groomed and bridled steed evokes a powerful and striking image of nobility, strength and affluence. On their own, the trappings themselves are nothing of distinction, but they do draw our attention to the otherwise possibly overlooked fine features of equine beauty.

Poverty is not pleasant or beautiful. It's no fun struggling to make ends meet. There is nothing romantic or exotic about living in a slum. Yet, sometimes it is the toughest times that accentuate our innate goodness, and bring the best in us to the fore. The human soul is full of kindness, love, and compassion. We just don't always know where to find it. Need and deprivation compel us to draw upon the great repository which we already possess.

Challenging times cause us to take a step back and evaluate what is important and what is not. The older generation tells of sharing their last crusts of bread with others during the meager years of WWII, of people risking their lives for the sake of others. They did not do so because they were any nobler than us, nor because they dreamt that the stories would be retold on the other side of the ocean decades later. They recognized what needed to be done, and they did it.

Poverty brings out the best in us, like a red strap on a white horse. Let's hope the lessons we learn remain with us long after the economy swings upwards again.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Discussion (4)
December 6, 2015
Another Interpretation
This is the meaning of, “Poverty befits Israel like a red strap for a white horse” (BT Ḥagigah 9b). If he is already a Jew in utter greatness, still, poverty is befitting, for it is a place of deficiency so that he will be able to offer a prayer.

This is the issue presented in the Gemara: Rabbi Ela said to ‘Ulla: ‘When you go up there [i.e., to the Land of Israel], give my greeting to my brother Rabbi Berona in the presence of the whole academy, for he is a great man and rejoices to perform a mitsvah [in the correct manner]. Once he succeeded in joining ge’ullah with tefillah, and a smile did not leave his lips the whole day’” (Berakhot 9b). In other words, his being a great man is when he is already in a state of redemption, redeemed from all the deficiencies, with nothing more to do. In that state, he has work finding some fault in himself so as to pray for it. And when he was “Joining redemption with prayer,” he promptly found a place for
Anonymous
May 31, 2013
Any experience with true poverty?
Quick question. Has the author of this article ever experienced poverty? Not just "trying times", but true poverty. Just curious.
CRM
May 31, 2013
I vehmently disagree with this take on Poverty bringing out the best in us. My family of 7 has been impoverished for many years. We can't seem to climb out of it. It gets worse. H-shem just keeps raining it down. It 's extremely extremely extremely difficult to stay positive and do positive and think positive while we struggle to feed our children. We struggle to feed...our children!! This is not bringing out the best in any of us. It's slowly kililng us. Thank you. (sorry...I'm just saying...)
CRM
July 19, 2012
Poverty brings out the best in us?
Well, I can only hope that this were the case for myself. Having first to leave work due to a disability (doctoer's orders), then return to work only to be laid off again. (12 weeks total with out any unemployment benefits. I can honestly say that it has been difficult, and at times makes me stir crazy while trying to find work.

"Challenging times cause us to take a step back and evaluate what is important and what is not." Well, I think I have attempted to do this, but things are still clouded... I try to pray, and be thankful for His blessings but sometimes no (plus it does not help that I am generally prone to depressive moods). Baruch Hashem!
Brandon
Allendale, MI, USA