When analyzing a disagreement in the Talmud the first question one must ask is not “What is the argument about?”, but rather, “What can they agree upon.” Determining common ground is the foundation for discovering some facts. It may be that the argument is broader than one may surmise, but one knows that at least the argument goes this far. In other words, by minimizing the dispute, one does not only assert a common ground, but s/he actually arrives at a modest truth.
The modest truth being that at least they are arguing about this. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Parshat Ki Tavo enumerates a litany of curses that will fall on those who cross God. One of the more unnerving of those curses is:
And your life will hang (or depend upon) before you, you will be frightened night and day, and you will not believe in your life.
There is a disagreement in Midrash Esther Rabba on how one unpacks the verse, which is instructive:
The Sages taught: AND YOUR LIFE WILL HANG BEFORE (DEPEND UPON) YOU… this refers to a person who has grain for one year.
…AND YOU WILL BE FRIGHTENED NIGHT AND DAY…”this refers to a person who must buy his flour each day from the miller. “
…AND YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE IN YOUR LIFE.” This refers to one who must buy his bread from the baker.”
Rabbi Berachya, however, disagreed “AND YOUR LIFE WILL HANG BEFORE (DEPEND UPON) YOU…” This refers to one who has grain for three years.
…AND YOU WILL BE FRIGHTENED NIGHT AND DAY…” This refers to one who has grain for one year. “
…AND YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE IN YOUR LIFE.” This refers to one who must get his grain each day from the miller.
The Sages asked: What about the one who must get his bread from the baker?
Rabbi Berachya answered: The Torah did not address the dead.
Both opinions agree that the first clause of the verse is not a curse, but in fact, a positive statement of self sufficiency. They also agree that the last two clauses are curses. Their disagreement is one of degree. Is one anxious and insecure, if he “only” has enough wheat for the year? The Rabbis say no, and Rabbi Berachya disagrees.
One might argue that it depends on the individual and maybe Rabbi Berahya would also agree with this, but he is saying that one should be anxious if he is depleting resources throughout the year without necessarily replenishing them. A person should be anxious if he is not very conservative about his spending–if one does not assume this responsibility. In fact, if one is totally dependent on the system for even baking his bread (presuming he is incapable of doing it) Rav Berachya gives this caustic response, that a person who does not take minimal responsibility for his life is not considered to be “alive.” The system will not succeed in addressing his needs because the system needs something to work with.
The Rabbis say the Torah requires us to take care of everyone regardless of their (in)capacity.
Nobody is considered lost, but when the system is stretched, there is wisdom in placing ones resources where they will do the most good. How does one ascertain where, how and how much is a question for the ages, but here are two opinions, one conservative and one liberal operating under the same system, deciphering the same verse that have much agreement between them. Their disagreement, however, is profoundly fundamental eliciting images of two very different personalities and orientations.
This is a window on two opinions that are not often quoted in the literature. One can certainly find scores of references that unequivocally require us to care for the most vulnerable, but this is a window on framing how this is to be done and even for whom.
The question in the background is: When, if ever, does a person become a lost cause?
For more learning on this Midrash, click here.