Public Housing: A Concrete Step to End Poverty

I have always wondered about the seeming contradiction in this week’s Torah portion (Re’eh) between God saying “There shall be no needy among you (Deuteronomy 15:4), and that there will always be needy, “For there will never cease to be needy one’s in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).  Similarly, some might find it contradictory that HaMa’abarah (The Jerusalem public housing collective I helped found), and other members of the Public Housing Forum I also helped to found , protested this Tuesday against Shaul Meridor, the head of the Israeli Finance Ministry’s Budget Department.  Just the week before, government ministers adapted Housing Minister Galant’s National Public Housing Emergency Plan with the support of Finance Minister Kahlon.  However, Meridor (and presumably his boss) blocked the operative line mandating the building/acquiring of 72,000 additional public housing units between 2019-2028.  These units are essential for the thousands waiting year after year on the public housing list, not to mention the thousands more who are kept off the list by non-needs based criteria.

The fact is that God’s promise in 15:4 is that there will be no needy among us “If only you heed Adonai your God, and take care to keep all of this commandment that I command you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:5) Part of that commandment is that we are to support the propertyless Levite, and the poorest and weakest, symbolized by the non-Jew living among us, the orphan and the widow.  (Deuteronomy 14: 27-29).

The current government should be given credit for building public housing for the first time since the early 90’s, and stable housing is an essential component of lifting people out of poverty (Or, giving people a chance to lift themselves out of poverty.).  However, housing for all will not come about just because of a decision to create a committee to deal with the problem.  The corollary of the Torah’s condition that we obey God’s concrete commandments to fight poverty is that we take concrete steps, such as expending concrete resources to put a roof over every citizen.

When commenting on the commandment to leave the corners of our fields and fallen sheaves for the poor to glean, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains why those without property (either a field or a home) are vulnerable, and why the command to help them must not be dependent on the good will of those who are better off,

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 intelligence 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.  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).   No longer merely a matter of conscience for  righteous property owners. The field is the property of the poor and the ger.  Supporting the poor is tzedakah, obligatory justice.  (Commentary to Leviticus 23:22.)

Our Torah portion begins by telling us that God has set before us the blessing and the curse.  We will be blessed if we take we obey the concrete commandments we have been given. That means concrete action on behalf of the needy among us.

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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