In an interview in 2010, Oscar winner Russell Crowe explained why he took on the role of Robin Hood in the movie of the same name. He felt like “there [wa]s something wonderful about a story that has lasted for so long. Its core thing, the thing that attract[ed] me, and has attracted me since I was a five-year-old kid…is that there is some guy out there who will go out and work on behalf of the people who can’t do something for themselves.”
So what is about the Robin Hood story that makes it so enduring?
Perhaps the Robin Hood still resonates for us because we have a natural aversion to too much income inequality. A recent study by economists Michael Norton and Dan Ariely found that
[w]hile liberals and the poor favored slightly more equal distributions than conservatives and the wealthy, a large majority of every group we surveyed – from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal – agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)
Certainly, if we are lucky enough to be comfortable, we probably feel like we have earned our success (and hopefully, we actually did earn it!). But many of us have also faced difficult and challenging times. If we live long enough, we begin to recognize that luck often plays a large part in how wealthy we are at any given moment. And when we become aware of the hand of fortune in the monetary realm, we also start to realize that there may be value in helping lessen the gap between “rich” and “poor.”
The Relationship Between Rich and Poor
The Rabbis believed that if we do happen to live comfortably, that’s wonderful – but it also entails certain responsibilities:
“In the day of prosperity, enjoy the prosperity” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyya said, “In the day of your fellow man’s prosperity, rejoice with him. And in the day of adversity, reflect. If adversity confronts your fellow, consider how to do him a kindness and save him…But why does God create both poor people and rich people? In order for them to draw riches from each other, as it says, ‘God has made one for the other’ (Ecclesiastes 7:14).” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, 28 in Rabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy, 55)
If we are prosperous, we are certainly allowed to enjoy it. But we also know that prosperity can become adversity all too easily. And if that is the case, then we can see that helping others is clearly a responsibility we have.
But what is truly fascinating is that giving money to help others actually makes us feel better than simply having money. Author Jonah Lehrer describes a Caltech study where people were randomly selected to be “rich” or “poor” and the “rich” people were immediately given $50. They were then placed in a brain scanner and given an opportunity to give some of that money to a stranger. Amazingly, the reward center in their brains lit up when the “rich” people were giving money to a “poor” stranger! As he notes:
The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good – it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)
Perhaps the Robin Hood story endures even up to today because thinking about “giving to the poor” simply makes us feel good (although certainly just “taking from the rich” is not what we should do!). So maybe we should strive to become a bit more like Robin Hood on the “giving” part of that equation — not only would it make the world more fair, it would make us feel better, as well.
As we give to others, we can find simchat mitzvah, the joy in fulfilling a mitzvah, which not only makes our world a little more whole, it elevates our souls a little more, as well.