Parshat Re'eh: Spanning the needs of all

‘But these are they of which ye shall not eat: the great vulture, and the bearded vulture, and the ospray and the glede, and the falcon, and the kite after its kinds’ (Re’eh; Deuteronomy 14:12-13).

August 26, 2011 16:37
4 minute read.
griffon vulture 248.88

griffon vulture 248.88. (photo credit: Yoram Shpirer )

Behold, I am placing before you this day both a blessing and a curse... (Deuteronomy 11:26)

Despite the looming security issue facing our still-fledgling state, this September in the United Nations and the threatening intifada in its wake, tens of thousands of Israelis of all ages have taken to the streets and are peacefully and passionately demonstrating in city after city for stabilization of basic food costs and energy supplies, for greater social justice within Israeli society, for more affordable housing for those with less financial resources.

Apparently, despite the meteoric economic success of our young “start up nation” and at the same time that an economic debacle has overtaken America and Western Europe – nevertheless it is the glaring gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” within our populace which is the crucial issue crying out to be rectified.
In a fascinating parallel vein, within the US the major political parties are at loggerheads before the upcoming presidential election as to how to extricate America from its economic doldrums. Would the majority best be served by expanding the responsibility of government to provide employment, housing and proper healthcare for all its citizens in a welfare socialist-state environment? On the other hand, ought government merely provide maximal opportunity for individual citizens to create jobs and housing as an integral part of successful business expansion and to render optimal healthcare by encouraging the best scientific minds to enter the medical profession in a more free-wheeling capitalistic climate? The goal in both countries is the same; to enable its citizenry of all economic strata including the infirm, the handicapped and the “stranger,” to enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as fully as possible.

The question is how best to realize our goal.

The portion of Re’eh opens by presenting each Jew with a choice between a life of blessings or a life of curses, with the blessings to be rendered “this day” on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Ebal.

The Bible continues to give commands, blessings and curses on “this self-same day” (Deut. 11:26-28), and we are told that “this day” marked the entrance of the Jews into Israel under Joshua (Deut. 27:11-12). It was a day of a third covenant, additional to the previous Covenant between the Pieces (Genesis 15) as well as to the previous covenant at Sinai. This third covenant (Deut. 29:11) occurred in the Arava (Deut. 1:1).

The Talmud (B.T. Sota 37B), mindful of the fact that this covenant is bound up with the entry of the Israelites into the Land of Canaan (henceforth Israel), refers to this as the Covenant of Responsibility or Co-Signership, (the Hebrew arev means co-signer, an obvious wordplay emanating from the place Arava, Arvot Moab) underscoring the fact that once the Israelites inhabit the Promised Land, we must each take responsibility for each other, for every sector within our population. And this means especially social justice for the weaker segments of our population, as the 12 curses on Mount Ebal testify, most notably “cursed is he who perverts justice for the strange (foreigner), orphan or widow” (Deut. 27:19).

The Bible expects society to respond to the needs of the indigent. Tithes were to be given to the Levites and the Priests-Kohanim – remember that they were the landless ministers of the Temple and teachers of Torah, so their gifts could be seen today as school tuition and synagogue dues. Every third and sixth year of the Sabbatical seven-year cycle each farmer had to give tithes for the poor. Farmers also had to leave over a spare portion of land to be tilled by the poor, who would reap their own harvest. Note that everyone gave the same percentage for the tithe, each individual (not a governmental agency) himself administered to whom to give his tithe, and the poor was given a piece of land to work – not a welfare hand-out for doing nothing. In a much later generation, Maimonides rules that the highest form of charity is giving an individual a job to prevent his penury (Mishne Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10,7).

All of this proves that the Bible is concerned – and the government of Israel must be concerned – for every citizen’s ability to have a suitable roof over his head and a healthy meal on his table.

What this responsibly means is that there is a necessity for breaking the monopolies of tycoons who also control media, for seeing to it that teachers and doctors are well paid for their services, for lowering costs of staple foods and gas, for restructuring unfair tax systems, for privatizing land sales and demanding that a certain percentage of apartments go to students and young families and for streamlining our bureaucracy.

What it does not mean is the creation of a socialist welfare state which dramatically failed under Communism (despite the slogans on behalf of social justice and even failed in our more benign form of the Kibbutz Movement). Hence I was very much taken aback by all the red flags predominantly displayed at the demonstrations – and even a hammer-and-sickle flag in the Haifa demonstrations. I would submit that the responsibility of the individual to help himself as fostered by capitalism with proper safeguards for the weaker segments of society has so far proved to be the most effective.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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