Each year on Christmas Day the New York Times runs a short phrase at the top of its front page, in green lettering: Its Christmas – Remember the Neediest. This is a reflection of a traditional religious idea – on days that are set aside to remember and reflect, to be glad and grateful, to be sensitive to the blessings we have in life, we should remember those less fortunate, and in that remembering make sure to do something to help improve their lot in life.
In Judaism this value can be seen in the connection of holiday celebrations and the giving of charity (צדקה). On Purim and Passover we are expected to give to the needy, and in modern times the High Holy Day period has become one connected to a variety of charitable appeals, from the synagogue’s annual to Israel Bonds and just about everything in between.
This impulse without question goes back to the Bible itself. In the Hebrew Bible we are warned again and again to care for the marginalized – the orphan, widow, and stranger. Those who cannot care for themselves, who need some extra help to live a proper and dignified life. It is ironic that in today’s polarized political climate, with so many conservative groups so closely identifying with the Bible and their understanding of its values, the initial impulse of the text was both progressive and what we would call today ‘liberal.’
Consider the following biblical concepts: there should be a sliding scale fee for poor people who need to access the sacrificial system in Jerusalem (Leviticus 5); financial transactions should be legislated and regulated (in terms of charging interest (Exodus 22 and other places) and in terms of the full remission of debt every 50 years (Leviticus 25)); a persons of means is commanded to return an item a poor person gave them as a loan guarantee if the item is essential to that person’s dignity and comfort (Deuteronomy 24); and the list could go on and on. On the macro level, it is clear that one of the Hebrew Bible’s overarching concerns is the prevention of a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.
As holidays come and go in our various faith traditions, we are reminded in our celebration of those days to not forget the needy. The Bible would extend that message, for in its hundreds of laws as well as in its central values is a message – the needy should not only be remembered on sacred days, but on every day.