Yom Shishi, 19 Iyyar 5779
Friday, 24 May 2019
Parashat Re'eh 2014

Parashat Re'eh
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
22nd August 2014

What should a just society look like? Moses tells us in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 15:4): “There shall be no needy among you!” How simple Moses makes it sound!? Did he really think the Israelites, albeit with God’s help, would be able to create a society without needy people? Did he believe that God’s blessing would ensure that magically nobody would become poor or needy?

He did not, for he continues his speech to the Israelites saying(Deut. 15:7-11): “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your brethren in any of your settlements in the land that the ETERNAL your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbour the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you look cruelly on your brother, the poor person, and give him nothing. He will cry out to the ETERNAL against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the ETERNAL your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and the needy in your land.’”

Let us unpack a little what Moses is trying to teach the Israelites. For one, he observes that it is likely that although there shouldn’t be anyone needy in society, there will be people who are poor. Secondly, Moses stresses that these poor people aren’t just anyone but they are our brethren’s – achikha, your sibling. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the Executive Director of the North American charity ‘Tru’ah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’, suggests that describing the poor person as our brethren, our sibling, sums up “the overarching Jewish attitude toward the poor … [w]ith this word [achikha (your brother)], the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.” Finally, having concluded that there will be needy people in society, Moses instructs the Israelites to embrace their responsibility for them. It is the responsibility of every person in society to ensure that the needy are sufficiently provided for through a combination of loans and charity. Moses explicitly warns that one should not be thinking selfish thoughts, namely that a loan may not be repaid. In addition he urges the Israelites to give willingly and see this as an opportunity to incur blessing for their own actions rather than as a burden. Indeed, Moses commands us not to look cruelly on the poor person and deny our help.

How do we, how does our society measure up to these biblical standards for the treatment of the poor? The Joseph Roundtree Foundation’s report “Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2013” gives a bleak outlook on our society. According to government statistics, 13 million people in the UK were in poverty in 2011/12, equivalent to 21% of the population. Furthermore, the authors of the report note that “the poverty statistics for 2011/12 hides a sharp shift downwards. Looking ‘forward’ into the recent past shows this has continued. Although the labour market has now turned, pay is still falling relative to prices. The real value of benefits will fall further in 2014. The danger is that this downward shift is becoming a downward spiral.”

Rather than treating those in our society with respect as our Jewish tradition demands, the report stresses that “[f]or those not working, the price of state financial support is discipline and demonization;” noting that “[f]or some, state support no longer even stops people from going hungry. This is the significance of food banks. It’s not so much the number of people having to turn to them (350,000 in 2012/13, even before the deepest of the cuts) as the reasons for the referrals, almost half arising directly from problems with the benefit system. If this system were doing its job, that proportion would be all but zero.” And while those who are poor but in work (with their families, now a majority of all those in poverty across the UK) enjoy more political sympathy, those in in-work poverty are ever more trapped as the main financial beneficiary of any extra work is not the worker and their family but the state.

The authors of the report summarise their findings saying: “The problems that this government and the last see themselves as addressing through their welfare reforms – a soaring benefit bill, worklessness, poverty – are serious indeed. But their roots do not lie in the people caught up in them. Instead they lie elsewhere, in the behaviour of both financial and non-financial corporations, in the laxity of regulators, in an unwillingness to contemplate a low-cost, good-quality alternative to private rented homes, in confused thinking that treats valid answers to questions about individuals (why this person is unemployed rather than that) as if they were valid answers for social ones too (why there is unemployment at all). If poverty is really to be ‘tackled’ (as the euphemism goes), it is the shortcomings of powerful institutions and ideas that must be the object of relentless attention, not the poor themselves.”

This of course is the message of our Torah portion. It is not the poor who are responsible for the existence of poverty. It is society’s responsibility to ensure that nobody has to live a life in poverty. To live up to this biblical vision of a just society, we must all work hard to change our society for the better. One way of doing so is to join Liberal Judaism’s campaign for the Living Wage. If your community hasn’t yet got involved, now is the time to find out more at http://www.liberaljudaism.org/news/887-we-pay-a-living-wage-will-you-film.html. As Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”