It’s not often I get (or choose ) to write about the Torah readings for Shemini Atzeret, so while I have the opportunity, I’ll take it (even though these same passages will come around as part of the regular cycle of readings.)
Part of the Torah reading, from Chapter 15 of D’varim, verse 4 starts:
4There shall be no needy among you — since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion–
Yet, just a few verses later, 15:7, we read:
7If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.
A clear and obvious contradiction, and not the only time it occurs in the Torah (and, more specifically, not the only time in reference to the poor.) To be fair, I’ve taken things a bit out of context. By continuing on the the next few verses of text after verse 4, we read, in verse 5:
5–if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.
Now, we’ll get to verse 6 in a moment. For now, we can consider that the conditional factors stipulated in verse 5 could explain the reason why we have verse 7ff. Of course, that means that we once again have to assume that G”d (or the authors of the Torah text) are working from the assumption that it’s darned near impossible for human beings, and especially the Israelites, to keep on the straight and narrow path and follow the commandments. That, in itself, is a pretty depressing thought. O f course, we can all wait around for Moshaikh, when we’ll be perfected (or is it the other way around-when we become perfect, Moshiakh will come? If that’s the case, it’s gonna be a long wait, according to the worldview on verses 4:7 here.)
Now, let’s be fair. The context here is the sabbatical system. This is made clear in verses 9ff:
9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. 10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.
Boy, if there ever was a case arguing against Hillel and his prosbul (a workaround for the remission of debts in the sabbatical year that allowed loans to be exempted from the remission of debts obligation. Hillel claimed it for for the benefit of both rich and poor. The rich knowing they could safely loan when a sabbatical was near would no longer be disinclined to do so, thus the poor person needing such a loan would be able to get one. I still think the rich come out the winners on this one.) If anything, Hillel’s prosbul could be partly responsible for the contradictory situation in which we find ourselves and which the Torah mentions. Instead of honoring the intent to erase all debt every 7 years (and imagine a world where this were so) we get a system that allows the rich to grow richer and the poor to keep borrowing. Sound familiar to anything that’s been going on lately. Sorry Hillel, I think you blew this one.
I wonder if some rabbi even came up with a workaround for the next few verse 12:15
12 If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. 13 When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: 14 Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.
Maybe the closing enjoinder makes it just a bit too difficult to disregard? There’s no similar verse after verses 4-7 which says
Bear in mind that you were one poor and oppressed by capitalists in the land of Israel, and the L”rd your G”d redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.
Hillel might have had a harder time circumventing that assertion!
Now, I promised to get back to verse 6.
6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.
This one has caused us no end of trouble (just like the Kol Nidre prayer.) Rather prophetic, too. Also easily abused by anti-Semites and worldwide Jewish conspiracy nuts. Unfortunately, while we did wind up making many loans to nations on than our own, we didn’t quite wind up dominating them, did we? G”d’s mistake, or ours? If we had followed all the commandments as a community, might things be different today? Only G”d knows (or maybe G”d doesn’t know?)
Clearly, sacrifices ere not enough to get G”d to forgive our failures to fully follow the commandments. We read in the special haftarah for Shemini Atzeret from I Kings, chapter 8:
62 The king and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord. 63 Solomon offered 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord. Thus the king and all the Israelites dedicated the House of the Lord. 64 That day the king consecrated the center of the court that was in front of the House of the Lord. For it was there that he presented the burnt offerings, the meal offerings, and the fat parts of the offerings of well-being, because the bronze altar that was before the Lord was too small to hold the burnt offerings, the meal offerings, and the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.
Wow. I thought kings weren’t supposed to be ostentatious and overdo things. Well, maybe that doesn’t include offerings to G”d? (I think it should!) Maybe the sacrifices helped for a while, but once Solomon was gone, things went all to pieces again, and fast.
We just can’t seem to get it right. Thousands of years later and we still can’t get it right. Yet, those same thousands of years later, we’re still here, we survive, mir zenen do. So maybe it’s true:
6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you.
To paraphrase Tevye the milkman, maybe G”d should shower those blessings on someone else for a while?
In closing, allow me to commend to you some of my previous musings speficially for Simchat Torah:
Sh’mini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah 5767 – Joyful and Glad of Heart
Simchat Torah 5766–Have We Met The Ally And Is They Us?
Simchat Torah 5757-5765-Unbroken Circle (With additions for each year)
Simchat Torah 5764-Circling the Torah–A Story of Chelm
Simchat Torah 5762–Not So Fast
Moadim L’Simcha, Hag Sameakh, and Shabbat Shalom,
© 2009 by Adrian A. Durlester
All translation from the revised JPS Tanakh.