I wrote this musing just three years ago, and I had so wanted to expand it in light of the ever-increasing awareness (and growing dissatisfaction) with wealth disparity in this country. I’m unabashedly with Bernie Sanders (and many others) on this. I’d like to say that the Torah and Jewish teaching unequivocally support my very left positions on wealth inequality in the U.S. (and the world.) Alas, I cannot. Although one can clearly find support for criticism of having most of the wealth in the hands of just a few in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other scriptures, Torah, Judaism (and indeed, these other faith traditions) have more nuanced and balanced ideas about all this. Leading me right back to these words I wrote just a few years ago.
(By the way, for a look at how Judaism can be spun to support a view on income inequality very different from my own using core texts, take a look at this lovely whitewashing rationalization (ooh, did I say that out loud?) http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-17-number-1/jewish-theology-and-economic-theory
Think Marx, Act Rashi. Think Rashi, Act Marx.
When we reach this parasha, not a year goes by when I do not recall the words and music of a song written by someone who has been part of my life journey, Karen Daniel. I have quoted it before in musings on Re’eh, only both times I placed it at the end. This year, I’m going to start with it. Based on the text of Deut. 15:11, it reads:
Open your hand to your brother
The poor and the needy in the land
Open your hand to your sister
I command: Open your hand.
We all have enough
More than we will ever need
And all around is jealousy and greed
Just remember it could be us
The wolf is knocking at the door
We give thanks for G”d’s abundance
By giving to the poor, so
Open your hand to your brother
The poor and the needy in the land
Open your hand to your sister
I command: Open your hand.
You can read my thoughts from 1999 (and updated in 2005) in the musing entitled “Open Your Hand” In 2005, we had just experienced hurricane Katrina and her after-effects, and my added thoughts that year were strongly affected by that. I had considered, as I often do, simply including the text of that previous musing in this one, and I do hope you’ll go and read it because many of the same thoughts and ideas there are part of what I also wish to say this year. You can think of many, if not all the comments I make in this musing, to be additions and supplements to those earlier ones.
כִּי־יִֽהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵֽאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָֽבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ מֵֽאָחִיךָ הָֽאֶבְיֽוֹן: ח כִּֽי־פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ לוֹ וְהַֽעֲבֵט תַּֽעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לֽוֹ: ט הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־יִֽהְיֶה דָבָר עִם־לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר קָֽרְבָה שְׁנַת־הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵֽינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָֽאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ וְקָרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל־יְהֹוָה וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵֽטְא: י נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹֽא־יֵרַע לְבָֽבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל ׀ הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָֽרֶכְךָ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָֽל־מַֽעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶֽךָ: יא כִּי לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל־כֵּן אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַּֽעֲנִיֶּךָ וּֽלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ
7 If, 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. 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.
Rashi has a bit to say on these verses. He, along with other sages, tell us that verse 7 serves to spell out an order of priority for charity – first to the truly destitute, then to your family/kin, then to your community, and then to the whole of the land.
I’ll admit that, at first, there was a part of me that wanted to turn that upside-down and reject that interpretation – to say that we have as much, if not more obligation to the needy in the rest of the world, and should not confine most of our giving to local cases. Then the wheels started turning in my head and I began to have my doubts. After all, isn’t the way we handle charity these days pretty much and reversal of Rashi’s order? With a click of a mouse, the press of a send key on a phone, or even the old fashioned writing of a check, we send off our donations to organizations. Yes, some of them are local, but in many cases, we actually seek out organizations that have regional, national, even global impact in order to make our donations go further and have wider impact. I believe that this is certainly well-motivated, but we may be missing something in the process. While I completely agree that we can and should give globally, we do have to remember to act locally.
I see the struggle in the Jewish community all the time. It goes beyond just charity, but encompasses the whole debate about Jews and Judaism being particularistic or universalistic. Having served as an Education Director, I know I have at times tried to steer my congregations, teachers, students, parents to give to Jewish charities. At other times, feeling guilty about this inward focus, I have tried to encourage broader giving and thinking.
However, more than anything else, I have always tried to encourage acting locally. Rather than drop money into blue boxes, or send checks or electronic donations to large organized charities, I’ve tried to set an example for others by instead taking that money and using it to buy socks and food which I keep in my car or on my person to give to those in need.
More and more people are carrying less and less cash. That’s unfortunate for the needy. Maybe we should all remember to carry around some cash simply to have on hand to give out to those in need when we encounter them.
Aye, and there’s the rub. We often go out of our way to avoid encountering the needy, the homeless, the panhandlers, the bag ladies. It won’t do any good to carry around extra cash (or socks, or food) to give to the needy unless we actually make an effort to go places where we know we will encounter them. There are times when I adjust my driving route specifically because I know I’ll pass by some needy folks. I should do it more often, I’m sure.
A friend of mine, who became another part of my life journey for a while, and who recently published this, which you should read, often talked about the need to not just stand at a threshold, but the need to go through and take action. Judaism is not a passive religion. The verses from our parasha certainly make that clear.
They don’t say “open your heart.” They say “open your hand.” It’s not just philosophical, it’s practical. Action is demanded. Of course, the phrase is metaphorical is some sense, yet at the same time it may be quite plain in its meaning.
Another piece of this text that caught my eye this year was verse 8, and Rashi’s thoughts on that. Rashi teaches us that this verse teaches us that a formerly wealthy person, now poor, may not be able to survive on the same amount as someone who has always been poor.
Again, at first, I wanted to reject what Rashi had to say outright. In our current political and socio-economic situation, these words just don’t feel right. I’m not sure they’d ever feel right, but particularly amidst all the debate between the Obama/Biden and Romney/Ryan camps (and my sympathies clearly lying with the former) I just don’t want to accept the idea that the formerly rich beggar may be entitled to a bigger handout than a lifelong beggar. Then, again, from each according to his ability to each according to his need, said Marx. Certainly not the ideology of Romney/Ryan (though I’m not entirely sure how much Obama/Biden buy into it either.) [And here it is, 2015, and another presidential election cycle is underway, and once again, economic disparity has come to the forefront – as well it should. Try reading these two selections from Robert Reich: http://robertreich.org/post/85532751265 and http://robertreich.org/post/126288944750,
Perhaps what Rashi is teaching us is that determining need has to include factors other than just raw need. My understanding of what may be motivating Rashi here is the desire to give every person dignity. The Torah teaches us that we must treat rich and poor alike. Somehow, it seems to me that Rashi is pushing some borders here. So I’m still struggling with what Rashi says. After all, we all enjoy a good comeuppance story, like the movie “Trading Places.” (In part that’s what’s so frustrating about the fact that other than Bernie Madoff, who stole from the rich, none of the other bankers and CEOs and CFOs responsible for the Wall St. meltdown have truly been punished for what they caused.)
This idea that Rashi gave us, that wealthy people gone broke may need more support than lifelong poor people as a matter of practicality and dignity seems to pervade our society – country-club minimum-security prisons, for example. RFID-equipped ankle bracelets for wealthy or well-known offenders. While some replaced monarchs or leaders are killed when deposed, many are simply put under house arrest in their own mansions.
Yet the ferocity of the French in their war against the aristocracy need not be our standard, either. Somewhere there has to be a middle ground.
And while I make not like Rashi’s interpretation, I may have to begrudgingly admit he is somewhat correct. The text does say “lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” It doesn’t tell us that we are the ones to judge what is sufficient for another’s needs. It tells us to give gladly and willingly.
Here’s an interesting dilemma: you encounter a homeless person or beggar on the street. You offer to take them to get some food. They respectfully request you take them to a bookstore instead and let them buy something to read. Do you do as they ask? Do you just give them money and let them make the choice (and is doing that eschewing some of your obligation?) Do you decide you know what is best for them and take them to get a meal anyway?
וְהַֽעֲבֵט תַּֽעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לֽוֹ
The JPS translation may not do it full justice, so I offer this translation instead:
Lend to him what he needs to borrow, enough of that which is needed, which is needed by him
That’s the second half of what Marx wrote – sort of. Clearly, from what I’ve written here, even that simple statement is not so simple and easy to understand and put into practice. Like so many things in Judaism, we need to take the time to figure out what it means. Thoughtfully, intentionally.(Similarly, for things like “You should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”) Now we need to examine for ourselves how we define the first part – according to our ability. That seems to be where we fall down the most. At least when it comes to translating it into action – direct action.
Think locally, act globally. Think globally, act locally. Somehow, I believe, Judaism teaches us that both are the way to go.
©2015, portion ©2012) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Re’eh 5774 – Our Own Gifts (Redux 5761)
Re’eh 5773 – Here’s a Tip
Re’eh 5771 – Revisiting B’lo L’sav’a
Re’eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re’eh 5766-Lo Toseif V’lo Tigra
Re’eh 5765–Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re’eh 5761–Our Own Gifts
Re’eh 5760/5763–B’lo l’sav’a
Re’eh 5759–Open Your Hand
Re’eh 5757/5758–How To Tell Prophet From Profit