Everything in Our Bank Account Is Not Ours: Kedoshim/Emor

Both Parashat Emor being read this week in Israel, and Kedoshim being read abroad, speak of the commandment to leave the corners of our fields and the fallen sheaves to be gleaned by those in need. (Leviticus19:  9-10, 23:22).  While I understand that Hirsch was adamantly opposed to socialism, his commentary on this commandment offers a religious critique of the way we tend to think about wealth and charity:

“If not for God’s Torah, only property owners would be able to live in a way appropriate to preserving human dignity.  Only they are blessed with the bounty of the fields.  Those without property – the poor and the gerim – are dependent on the mercy and the thinking of the property owners:  In this “Progressive” era, turning to them borders on criminality.   The crumbs granted by them humiliate those who receive.  But, it will not be done this way in Israel…For the wealth given to the collective grants dignified living to every individual. In Israel the fruit of the land and human efforts do not belong to property owners only:  But also those without property and gerim are partners with rights to part of the harvest.  It is the obligation of the wealthy to support them, and the right of the poor.  This is the warning which goes forth from the commandments of the corner of the field and gleaning.  And we have already explained this above. Field owners are not doing anybody a favor with these gifts.  They don’t even have the right to glean on behalf of the poor.  (See Yam Shlomo to Khulin 8).   From now on in the conscience of righteous property owners – the bountiful field is for the poor and the ger.  Supporting the poor is tzedakah, obligatory justice.”  (Commentary to Leviticus 23:22.

Whether it be the struggle for public housing for all Israelis in need that Torat Tzedek (Torah of Justice) and I are involved in, or any of the other questions of distributive justice  Israel and other societies face, I believe that we must begin with the religious understanding (or a secular equivalent) that “the earth and everything in it belongs to Adonai.” (Psalm 24:1)  We sin against God, and perhaps even deny God, when we believe that everything in our bank account is ours, or forget that the employees of a business help create the wealth of its owner.  Some midrashim teach us that the sin of Sodom was that they lived in a land blessed with natural resources, yet believed that they had the right to keep all their wealth to themselves because they created it.

Rabbi Menachem Froman z”l also believed that religious Jews and religious Muslims could make peace based on the principle that the Land belongs to God.

In our recent elections, the leaders of the national religious parties practically fell over themselves trying to prove who is more neo-liberal, and the most opposed to governmental support for those living in poverty. It is legitimate to debate what is the most effective way to help people to help themselves.  However, our shared starting point must be that we have a societal responsibility.  “Tzedakah” is more akin to income tax than charity.  Even linguistically, it is a derivative of “tzedek“-justice.  With some 170,000 Israelis in need of public houisng, only 3% of Israel’s housing stock is public housing. Some European countries have as much as 20%.  The previous government started to address this problem, and I hope our new government will do even more. However, based on their campaigns, there will be those who will push to go backwards, and rely on the insufficient policy of giving those in need financial assistance to rent from private landlords.  Historically, the amounts given are not sufficient to rent in many parts of the country, and there is no system to ensure that amounts are updated. This leads to many families being caught in a never ending cycle of renting an apartment beyond their means, eventually getting evicted, and starting over again.  They are denied the basic stability that allows families to hold on to jobs, avoid uprooting their children from school after school, etc.

We live in a society blessed with many resources. If we manage to break free from thinking about how to hold on to what is “ours,” understand that the wealth we are blessed with is not entirely “ours,” and perhaps even learn to feel more personally rewarded by the wellbeing of our society and our world as a whole, than by the size of the car we drive or how much land we own, we will find ourselves on the way to Sinai, symbolized by the counting of the omer commanded in Parashat Emor.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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