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.