Parashat Behar: the obligation to look after each other sooner rather than later

Again and again in sidra Behar we are told some variation of the scenario: “if your brother becomes poor so that he has to sell his possessions or himself, then his kinsman (go’el) shall come and redeem that which he has sold”. In other words, when someone experiences financial difficulty such that they have to sell their possessions or even enter bonded labour, their family or extended community are expected to provide a safety net, helping them recover their ability to maintain themselves. And if they do not, then time will come to his rescue, and the Jubilee will release him from his debts and return to him his economic means of survival.

Perhaps the most powerful formulation of the statement is that found in Leviticus 25:35-36 “ V’chi yamuch achi’cha, umattah yado imach, v’che’che’zakta bo, ger v’toshav v’chai imach. If your brother becomes poor and his means fail in comparison to yours, then you shall uphold him, as a stranger and a settler shall he live with you. Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God, so that your brother may live with you”.

Two ideas spring out from these texts which read together become an unmistakable chorus of social concern – the first is the repetition of the word ‘imach – with you. The second the imperative ‘v’che’che’zakta bo’ and you will uphold, or strengthen him.

The bible is legislating here for a society of mutual responsibility. From its point of view we are all in relationship with each other, obligated to ensure the continued existence of each other, and unable to say “what happens to someone else is none of my business”; or else ”there are structures and systems to help these people, I need not get involved”.   Instead, we are described as being ‘achim’ – siblings, and we live amongst each other in an interdependent symbiotic world. We have the responsibility to pay attention to how others are managing in the world, to compare their resources with our own, and to support them when it seems that they will otherwise be unable to cope. Rashi tells us that this verse also teaches that we should help others as soon as they show signs of being unable to manage, a comment based on the Tannaitic midrash the Sifra which says:

“In other words, don’t allow him to fall unto utter poverty. The mitzvah may be explained with the analogy of a donkey which is carrying a heavy load. While the donkey continues to stand under the load, it is a relatively easy task to grab him and to steady him so that he is able to remain upright. But if he falls over, then even 5 people do not have the strength to raise him up again” (Sifra Behar 109b).

I love this analogy, because it works in such fine contra-distinction to the sibling analogy. Calling someone else your ‘brother’ and seeing them as an integral part of your own world requires one kind of world view – the slightly saintly sort that says “we are all children of the same God, we are all of equal value and worth, we must help each other out”. It is a beautiful ideology and one that I aspire to consistently holding, but I confess that sometimes it is almost too hard to see the spark of the divine in the soul of some people.

But the Midrash appeals to a different part of us – the pragmatic part that says “think of how difficult it would be to help someone if they reached real poverty – think of how many resources we would need to provide, of how inefficient it would be to have them in some sort of revolving door of social or medical care”. Better to help them BEFORE they start to sink to the point they won’t find it easy to rise from, better to help them NOW so that they won’t need so much more help later….

It is, I suppose, the ultimate political argument. It appeals to our pockets rather more than to our souls, to our selfishness rather than to our altruism. And it provides for members of society who are in need, earlier rather than later.

It seems to me that we ought to take more note of the wisdom of these texts. Clearly a society where some are allowed to subsist in abject poverty is not a healthy society, nor one which would be able to continue for very long – once an underclass is created, it undermines the very foundation of the society of which it is no longer a part. We all know that, and in various ways we try, as a society, to provide a system of checks and balances, of material benefits and of inducements to become self-sufficient. But there are many people who fall between the various services and who are not helped in any way. Asylum seekers find themselves unable to work, and unable to live on the restricted funds they are given. Mentally ill people frequently are helped to the point where they are beginning to get better, only to be then left to their own devices until their illness spirals downward to a point where they need radical assistance once more. Single parents unable to cope with the isolation, young people who have never, ever held down a job, the list could go on and on.

We struggle with all this, complain that we are already heavily taxed and what more can we do? We might toss a coin or donate to a charity working with vulnerable groups of people, but essentially we get on with our own lives, feeling regret when faced with such misery and pain, but otherwise pushing most social problems into the back of our minds. There is a limit to the responsibility we feel for the other, and we assume the State will take on the role of provider, while we tell ourselves that charity begins at home.

But bible challenges our comfortable complacency. Again and again we are told about our brother who becomes less and less able to sustain himself, and about our responsibility towards the one who is amongst and of us. How it is so important that each person have the rights and the resources to run their own lives that even if there is no one who can redeem their debts, they should be able to live as a hired servant in someone else’s household until the jubilee year itself will set them free.   But it is that one little phrase “ve’che’che’zakta bo” – you will uphold him – and its ancient interpretation – you will help him BEFORE he gets to the point where his life seems to be hopeless to him – that seems to me to be the essence of the matter. It is a way of ensuring that no one enters into the realms of degradation, that no one loses their basic right to self-determination, their claim to humanity, no one should become so poor or so hopeless that returning to take their part in society is just too big a task.

We all see people who seem to have fallen into a trap so enormous and so energy sapping that they don’t ever seem able to see a way out of it. Vulnerable people treated in hospital and then left unsupported when they go home, often too early in terms of their rehabilitation and the recovery of their confidence in their own ability to live independently. People who would like to train for a profession or trade, but who will lose the small financial support they are receiving if they do so. Our systems often maintain people at the lowest levels of society, and this is because we have seen only one part of the text, we have created boundaries around how much we are prepared to care and have delegated the responsibility to others, paying them to deal with it.

We have recently read the golden rule of torah – the command to love our neighbour as ourself – and one commentary on this rule always catches me – ‘you never say about yourself that you have loved yourself enough, that you need do no more for yourself but have fulfilled your obligation to yourself. In the same way you should love others”

It is an ideal for us to aspire to. Mostly we try to do about enough, but there are limits to our giving, to our patience, to our sense of connection and obligation. This is where the ingenious interpretation of the Sifra comes in. Yes it says, there are limits, and the calculation we must make is this one – which will be the most efficient way of caring for someone? Caring just enough so as to keep them in the revolving door of needing support? Or caring more than that, to help them change direction BEFORE things get too hard, to look after them until they are not simply not-ill, but actively able to live their own lives and support themselves properly? It may take more resources in the immediate term, but ultimately it is by far the most efficient way to create a healthy and harmonious society.

In the days before the State took on the role of provider of care for the vulnerable, bible created a structure where the nearest relatives would help those in need – and failing that there would be an amnesty of the debt – the jubilee. The expectation was that everyone would be able to own their own means of production. That they could sell first possessions, then land, then their own bonded labour. It was a system that allowed dignity and honour even for the poorest person. You might say that it was way ahead of its time. But the biggest innovation – and the one most relevant to us today is the timing of the rescuing of the vulnerable people. If they got to the point where they had to sell possessions, one redeemed the possessions to put them back to where they were. If they had to sell land, the land was to be bought back and given to them, if they were to sell themselves, even then they could be redeemed and given the freedom to work for themselves. The bible didn’t wait till people were at rock bottom but required intervention as soon as need became apparent. It is a lesson that if we were to put into practise today, would not only would create a more efficient and caring society, but would prevent a great deal of misery.

Today we have a new Government in the UK. I hope and pray they will strengthen and uphold all the people who live in our society, so that all may have the dignity of having enough and none may have to reach the hopelessness of despair before a helping hand is offered to them.

image of poverty statistics uk 2015 from fabian society

Lag B’omer. A moral tale for election day

Election Day will fall on Lag b’Omer –the thirty third day of the omer period where we count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, between Exodus and Revelation, between Freedom and Purpose.

The period of the counting of the omer is traditionally a quiet and introspective one, a time of semi mourning, although it is not clear for what we are mourning. One tradition says we are mourning the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because they had not shown enough respect to each other. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the omer, and so this is a day taken out of the mourning period, a day for celebration and bonfires, before we go back into our counting the days till Shavuot. The story does not make sense – why would we mourn those who behaved so badly? Why do we go back into mourning after lag b’omer? But what does make sense is the idea of why God sent the plague – because these students of the celebrated rabbi were disrespectful of each other.

There is a long tradition in seeing the hand of the divine in natural disasters – from the ten plagues in Egypt onwards Jewish teachers have linked what insurers call ‘Acts of God’ to spiritual lessons about God’. Sometimes, as with the story trying to add meaning to the minor festival of Lag b’Omer there is a morality tale that we can understand. When people do not value each other and treat each other with respect, catastrophe can ensue. Indeed we also have the tradition that the fall of Jerusaelm was essentially down to sinat chinam, to the populace hating each other without reason.

But sometimes this tradition gets out of hand. This week after the terrible earthquake in Nepal with thousands of people dead and many thousands more struggling to survive in desperate circumstances, two rabbis chose to make a linkage. One, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi posted approvingly on his Facebook page “All the idol worshiping places in Nepal are now destroyed”. And then The chief of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious court, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, told followers that the earthquake was meant as a lesson to the Jewish people to stop the conversions of people to Judaism done by Government paid rabbis within the IDF (and not under the control of his court)

I guess if we are going to have a habit of interpreting events in the natural world to give us moral lessons from the divinity we are always going to risk those voices who are so sure that their agenda is also God’s agenda come to the fore. And in the days of social media (a facebook page noch) these people will put their ideology across.

It is always difficult to be sure that we hear the authentic voice of God, but there is one sure fire test – if it is harmful to any people or peoples, all of whom our bible reminds us right at the start are created in the image of God, then we can be pretty sure this may be our viewpoint but it isn’t God’s.

We are counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, we are in a strange period of quiet and reflection, we are readying ourselves for Revelation, for meeting with God, for learning what our purpose is to be. We will remember the students of Rabbi Akiva who died, either because they were disrespectful of each other or, in another tradition, because they were rebelling against the harsh Roman Government of the day and fell in a great battle. Maybe both – revolting against a government that did not care about them, and passing on the lack of care to their fellows.

The next few days and weeks will see the election promises recede into the past and real politik take over. But whatever the colour and shape of our new governing body, it behoves them to remember to treat all of us with respect, to remember that we are all valuable human beings and equal before the creator, and that while God may not intervene in a dramatic way to show Divine pleasure or displeasure, there will most certainly be another election and we, the masses of ordinary people, will be able to affirm or dislodge them.