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A Steep Task We Cannot Avoid

A Steep Task We Cannot Avoid

people marching in an anti-poverty rally with a banner


Rabbi Tarfon teaches, “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).


With this lesson in mind, Reform Jews are presented with a steep task which we cannot avoid. We have committed ourselves to ending poverty in our country and ensuring that all people have access to housing, food, healthcare and other necessities they lack.  Yet, looking at the millions of people who experience poverty, it can feel that any effort we could take to alleviate the hardship would be hopeless. This feeling of hopelessness, a feeling shared by people of all faiths in all generations, led Rabbi Tarfon to make his proclamation in the Mishnah.  You may never reach your ultimate goal, he explains, but that does not nullify your sacred obligation to engage.


Last week the US Census Bureau released two reports that shed light on our progress combating poverty: the annual Report on Income and Poverty, which tracks wages and poverty levels in our nation and the Report on Health Insurance Coverage, which tracks Americans’ access to health insurance.  


The poverty report tells us that while the country appears to be recovering from the economic recession, the poverty rate has not changed over the last year. 46.7 million people or 14.8% of Americans live in poverty. This figure includes:

  • 15.5 million children
  • 4.6 million seniors
  • 10.2 million workers
  • 26.5 million people with disabilities


These numbers present a challenge that feels insurmountable, but [GS1] as we are taught by Rabbi Tarfon, we cannot use the barriers in our journey as an excuse to stray from the path of pursuing justice.


And sometimes when we stay committed, we will get to see the benefits of our work. The Report on Health Insurance Coverage showed that the number of uninsured people in our country has dropped by 8.8 million this year. This means that near 16 million people have acquired health insurance since open enrollment on new health care exchanges began two years ago. The RAC has called on Congress to protect the benefits provided through the Affordable Care Act since it was passed in 2010, and we now see that our efforts have played an important role in ensuring millions of people are able to afford medical care when they get sick.


Seeing this progress is inspiring, yet these moments are too few and far between.  Hopefully these moments provide strength for the times when we can’t clearly see the way forward, the times when it is hardest to engage with the task at hand.


Rabbi Tarfon allows us to change the question we ask ourselves. Not “Have I solved the problem of poverty in America?” but “What have I done today to make a difference?”  Let’s make 5776 the year we rededicate ourselves to fighting poverty in America. We can’t avoid it, for even when we cannot see our progress, there is too much at stake!


One important way we can action to end poverty in the United States is to raise the federal minimum wage. Take action today and urge your Members of Congress to support the Raise the Wage Act!


For more information on the RAC’s work on economic justice issues, click here.


Tyler Dratch is the Torah, text, and tradition Coordinator at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

Tyler Dratch

Published: 9/24/2015