In the context of discussing the importance of giving charity, Rabbi Meir raises one of the most basic questions of theology – why doesn’t God, who loves all of His children, and is omnipotent – support the indigent? The answer that he offers is that God commands us to sustain the poor, offering us an opportunity to do good by giving charity, thus saving us from the punishment of gehinom.
The Gemara relates that Turnus Rufus – Tineius Rufus, the Roman governor in Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple – asked Rabbi Akiva this very question. When Rabbi Akiva shared Rabbi Meir’s answer with him, Turnus Rufus responded that he could prove that giving charity should have the opposite effect, sending the giver to gehinom. His argument was that if a king becomes angry at his servant and banishes him to the dungeon, ordering that he be neither fed nor given to drink, he would certainly be upset with someone who defied his orders and fed the prisoner. Given that the Jewish people are the servants of God (based on Vayikra 25:55) and that He decreed that some people are poor, how can you suggest that it fulfills God’s will for His servants to feed the poor, who he decreed should be poor?
Rabbi Akiva responded with a parallel parable. If a king becomes angry with his son and banishes him to the dungeon, ordering that he be neither fed nor given to drink, he would certainly be pleased to hear that someone defied his orders and fed the prisoner. No doubt that person would be rewarded! Given that the Jewish people are called the sons of God (based on Devarim 14:1), this is the appropriate comparison.
Unsatisfied, Turnus Rufus argued that the Jewish people are considered God’s children only when they serve him properly. Given the current state of the Jewish people, he argued that they were certainly at a point in history when they should be viewed as God’s servants, and that his parable was the correct one. Rabbi Akiva pointed to the passage in Yeshayahu (58:7), which he interpreted to refer to a situation where foreign soldiers were billeted in Jewish homes, as discussing current reality – and that passage concludes “offer the hungry your bread.”
Turnus Rufus ruled in Judea during the period of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, which he put down with great cruelty. As is told in this story, he carried on philosophical and theological debates with Rabbi Akiva – whose death he ordered as one of the Asara harugei malkhut – the Ten Martyrs.