An Ancient Social Ethic

Behar By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 20, 1995 / 5755 | Main Commentary

One winter Friday evening after services, I happened to walk home in the company of a talkative Seminary student. As we made our way down Broadway, we passed a weary and emaciated man whispering for some spare change. On Shabbat I pay less heed to such heartrending pleas because I don’t have any money with me. Neither did my young companion. Yet he politely interrupted our animated conversation and asked the man whether he would like a sandwich. When he responded with evident joy that he would, the student pulled out a neatly wrapped sandwich from his plastic bag and gave it to him. Obviously, unlike me, the student did not allow Shabbat to prevent him from aiding the homeless who crowd the sidewalks of Broadway in the midst of the academic acropolis known as Morningside Heights. Though we met no more homeless before we parted company, for all I knew my companion still had another sandwich or two left in his bag to feed the hungry. His unobtrusive display of forethought and compassion stirred me deeply, as it filled me with pride.

What I witnessed that evening bespoke the demanding spirit that governs this week’s parasha. The Torah gives us a set of injunctions that seeks to render concrete what it means to “love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).” Specifically, we are asked to act personally to stem the decline of a fellow Israelite into a hopeless state of poverty. The welfare of the whole imposes on each of us a measure of responsibility for those neighbors and citizens afflicted with economic misfortune, and the earlier we intervene the better. The implicit ideal is to minimize the inequities of the marketplace that lead to excessively stratified class structure.

Behar’s four counsels of compassion do not only reveal an internal logical sequence, but are joined by the use of the same rare Hebrew verb, mookh, which means “to sink into poverty.” In fact, the verb will appear exactly one more time in all of Scripture, in chapter 27:8 of Leviticus.

The Torah begins with the first state of impoverishment, the need to sell part of one’s land holdings, in ancient Israel the basic source of wealth (Leviticus 25:25). If that occurs, the goal is to restore the plot to its original owner as soon as possible, either through purchase by his closest relative or by himself, when his affairs take a turn for the better. Should neither occur, the land would revert to its original owner until the year of the jubilee, that is the 50th year when all sold parcels of land were to revert to their original owners. With God regarded as the ultimate proprietor of the Land of Israel, the Torah made provision only for leasing land, not for any permanent transfer of ownership (as in fact is the case in modern Israel).

Should the economic descent continue to the point where an Israelite would lose all his land and become indebted to another Israelite, the Torah stipulates that he is to be treated as a kinsman. “Do not lend him money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest (Leviticus 25:37).” In the spirit of this regulation, the Rabbis intensified the meaning of the verb ve—hehezakta bo (25:35) from the descriptive “you hold him as if he were a resident alien” to the prescriptive “you should strengthen him,” meaning, intercede early. Don’t wait until he has collapsed completely. Help him now as long as he is still on his feet, because, as the midrash puts figuratively, it is harder to put a heavy load back on a donkey after it has fallen off, than to steady it while it is still on his back. Using this sense of the verb, Maimonides declares that indeed this is the highest form of charity: a job rather than rations, assistance which is of a commercial nature and leads to a livelihood rather than charity that merely alleviates the pressing needs of daily existence.

A still further erosion in status sets in when circumstances force an Israelite to indenture himself to another Israelite. In this case he is to be spared the degradation of slavery. We are to treat him as a “hired or bound’ laborer (Leviticus 25:39—40).” And finally the nadir of the social order, the most demeaning and precarious situation of all: for an Israelite to become the slave of a non—Israelite (Leviticus 25:17). In both eventualities, to redeem him is the highest priority, because the animating vision of society is egalitarian. God’s gift of national freedom and a secure homeland elevates God to being the ultimate owner of the land and sole overlord of its inhabitants. Neither property nor person may be violated by mediating forms of permanent subordination. Leviticus culminates with a bracing priestly vision of national destiny. Unlike other nations, Israel is governed directly by God, whence the radical notion that national independence must lead to individual equality.

Without doubt the ancient social ethic described in Behar has as much to do with the egalitarian ethos of modern Israel as the European socialism of its founders. Rabbinic Judaism served as the bridge, gradually elaborating the mandate of the Torah into a highly developed system of communal responsibility. The social activists among the Palestinian Rabbis dared to affirm that the doing of charity and acts of kindness (and not the study of Torah!) were equal to all other divine commandments together. Personal wealth was to be shared generously, ideally up to 20% of one’s annual income, and every Jewish community was to appoint officials to collect and distribute charity. Particularly noteworthy is the halakhic opinion of one 13th century Spanish luminary who sided with “the compassion crowd” of his day. In an unnamed community the number of indigent Jews had skyrocketed. Whereas the rich wanted to let them go begging for food and clothing from door to door, the less wealthy contended that the community had a duty to assist them with regular financial support. The rabbi backed the latter, even as he noted sadly that his generation had become impoverished in both spirit and money.

I wonder what he would have said of our own affluent time, when greed turns the quality of compassion into a term of opprobrium? The legacy of Judaism and a long history of extraordinary communal self—sufficiency have placed Jews in the forefront of those who don’t see wealth as an end in itself and are impelled by an ideal of social justice. Simon the Righteous was not far from the truth when he declaimed long ago that “The world rests on three things — on Torah, on service of God, on deeds of love.” It is that noble tradition which inspired my young companion to warm that winter Shabbat evening with a premeditated act of kindness.

Shabbat shalom u—mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’har are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.