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Parshat Re’eh 5771 - Rabi Maya Leibovich

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Parshat Re’eh 5771

(How the Pauper and the Hebrew Slave mirror the contemporary protest for social justice)

Parshat Re’eh deals with a variety of topics including mitzvot between people and God such as centralizing worship, prohibiting idol worship, and the laws of kashrut, as well as with mitzvot between people such as dealing with the poor and Hebrew slaves.

Yesterday, for the first time since I returned from abroad, I walked on Rothchild Blvd. in Tel Aviv, the bastion of social protest; I zigzaged between what I saw on the street and what this week’s torah portion commands us “to see”.

Let’s start by saying that the command “behold” at the beginning of the parsha does not have a concrete interpretation.  When Moses declares: “ Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” (Deut. 11, 26), the blessing and the curse do not have physical forms but are rather spiritual/metaphorical and Moshe’s cry is “to behold” with wisdom, in the heart and in the soul, to see under the surface, in depth and substantively.

The poor and the slave are presented as those in need of societal repair. The Torah has clear values as to their status but these have become lost or obsolete; it is worth our while to hold up these values and examine them.

First, the Torah reminds us that the pauper and the slave are our brothers – we are not talking about the “other” but rather about a situation within the family – one that cannot be ignored.  It is written: “If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren” (Deut. 15,7) as well as “If thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee” (Deut. 15,12). We are not talking about relatives by blood, but rather those who like us accept God’s covenant, members of our nation.  The wealthy are inclined to forget or ignore the existence of those who lack means.  The Torah forbids this kind of estrangement.  The Torah demands that we open our hearts and our hands: “If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth.” (Deut 15, 7-8)  The Torah also warns the wealthy not to abstain from making loans to the poor close to shmitah year for fear that the loan will not be repaid but rather demands :  ”You shalt surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you givest unto him;” (Deut. 15,10).  The Torah demands that the giving be affable and with a good heart.

We can see the importance of this mitzvah in the eyes of the author in the multiple usage of double verbs “surely open thy hand”, “surely lend him”, “surely give him”. The importance is reinforced by the warning on the one hand “Beware” (from lack of giving) and the promise of reward on the other “because that for this thing the LORD thy God will bless thee in all thy work, and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto.” (Deut. 15,10)

When the Torah begins the discussion of this matter with the words “If there be among you a needy man” the intention is not “if” but rather “when”.  Today, like then, there were social gaps and those in need, as it is written “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying: 'Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land.” (Deut. 15,11)

The demand for social justice in the Torah is not limited to just the poor.  Social justice is also demanded for slaves.  Who is a slave? It is your Hebrew brother or sister who is unable to repay a loan and therefore is bound to you in repayment of their debt.

The responsibility for a slave is even more difficult than that of a poor person who was not sold into slavery.  The slave renounces his personal freedom.  I believe that poverty is also a form of enslavement; constantly worrying about subsistence and a loss of freedom.  The Torah reminds us “And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee” (Deut. 15,15).  We also remember that in Parshat Mishpatim, which follows the giving of the ten commandments in the book of Exodus, begins with the release of the Hebrew slave in the seventh year – as a reminder of the exodus from Egypt.  The laws of the Hebrew slave are related to the first commandment “ I am the Lord your God, who delivered you from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Exodus, 20, 2).  The demand to free Hebrew slaves after seven years is therefore not just a mitzvah between people but also a mitzvah between the nation of Israel and God.  It is so important that it is anchored in the first commandment.

The message God gave the children of Israel when he delivered them from Egypt, from the house of bondage, is that they are forever forbidden to put themselves, their peers or others into Egypt, nor are they allowed to rob them of their freedom.  Freedom is a basic condition for the relationship between man and God.  How we relate to the poor is not just something we do out of the goodness of our hearts, but rather is an ethical obligation between man and God.

Therefore, the government of Israel cannot ignore the fact that 25% of our population lives under the poverty line; that this makes them “slaves” in modern times (yes, this is a different kind of slavery than what it is referred to in the Torah, but it is still slavery, and we can add other enslaving conditions to this such as manpower companies, the treatment of foreign workers, trade in women and more).

There are more than a few  ‘appendixes”  to the social protestors.  Some of them are homeless, others have been rejected by society for various reasons, and their appearance is not always pleasing to the eye.

But the basis for the social protest, which arose a month ago presents a justified demand for a society which is fair and equal – this is not only an appropriate demand, but this is also what our Torah demands of us, and even if rockets are being fired and the security situation is shaky – this protest has to been in the minds, hearts and souls of our leaders as it is the soul of the Torah, and it is the source of the divine promise “ and the LORD thy God will bless thee in all that thou doest.” (Deut. 15.18)

Shabbat shalom!