When People Fall Behind: B’Har/B’Khukotai

This week’s double Torah portion includes some of the basic Jewish principles of  social economic justice, and of ecology as well. In B’har we are commanded to give the land its rest in the sabbatical year. While it is a matter of debate whether this was ever observed, those whose circumstances had forced them to sell their family lands, returned to their holdings when the jubilee was declared every 50 years. Those who had indentured themselves returned to their families. (Fellow Jews. The Torah allows permanent slavery of non-Jews, although the Talmud imposes many restrictions.)  While not mentioned in our portion, in Deuteronomy we learn that there was also to be a cancellation of debts in the sabbatical year.

The Torah also teaches familial solidarity.  In our portion, families are to help each other redeem property and indentured servants before the jubilee.  The overriding principle is that the Land can never truly belong to human beings, because it belongs to God. Jews cannot be permanent slaves to other human beings, because we are eternally the servants of God. The Torah does not eliminate or rule out poverty or social gaps that can develop, be they a matter of poor choices on our part or the result of matters beyond our control. However, it limits them, and imposes a periodic rebalancing. While the economic realities of a changing world led to end runs around some of these rules, the Torah attempts to combat the axiom that “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” The Torah teaches us that these laws demand faith, when we ask ourselves how we will eat when we allow the land to lay fallow.

In B’Khukotai, we are presented with the blessings we will enjoy if we are loyal to God, and the curses we will suffer if we act hostilely towards God, but assured that, even when God punishes us, our Covenant with God will never be annulled. When we return to God, God will return to us.  We seem to have moved away from our relationship to fellow human beings. The very last verses of B’har deal with idolatry and observing God’s Sabbaths. B’khulotai then launches into the blessings and curses. However, the context is God’s commandments in their entirety, including the social legislation we have just read. Because all human beings are created in God’s Image, to act hostilely to a fellow human being, is to act with hostility towards God.

While the solidarity spoken of in our Torah portions is primarily familial solidarity, we are elsewhere taught to maintain communal and national solidarity. I would add, global and human solidarity.  The realities of statehood, the history of the oppression of Jews, and our struggles against what is perceived as a hostile world (sometimes accurately, sometimes magnified by our demagogues) have strengthened our sense of national solidarity, often at the expense of global and human solidarity.

Interestingly, while the New JPS Translation translates Leviticus 25:35, “If your brother/sister, being in straights, comes under your authority and you hold him/her as though a resident alien, let him/her live by your side,”  the medieval Torah commentator Ibn Ezra reads this differently:

your brother i.e., an Israelite.
with you You are obligated to help when s/he is with you, and when you are aware of him/her.
you must support him/her This metaphor is the opposite of his/her fortune drops: you must keep him/her from falling.
a foreign resident The above commandment applies to your own countryperson; but even if s/he is a foreign resident, s/he will live  with you (the verb is in the future tense).

Ibn Ezra teaches us two important lessons:

  1. We have responsibility both for Jews and non-Jews. The Hebrew is a bit unclear, but Rashi and 19th century Rabbi Shimon Raphael Hirsch treat this as does Ibn Ezra.
  2. While most of the laws in our portion seem to deal with providing a corrective after the fact, Ibn Ezra’s reading is that we must be proactive, doing what we can to prevent others from falling into dependency. Rashi, quoting Midrash Sifra, reads this as saying that when somebody begins to fall, help him/her before they have fallen so far that it will be almost impossible to correct the situation.

Yet, as has often happened historically, the call to national solidarity against real or perceived outside threats can be a cover for a lack of true communal solidarity. As a whole, Israel is a relatively prosperous society. Yet, we have an underclass.  In the coming years we will discover whether that underclass has permanently grown as a result of the coronavirus.  How many of the over 20% percent of Israelis now unemployed will eventually return to their old jobs, or new ones? How many will discover that they have permanently fallen behind? However, while the situation of at least some will return to their where they were previously after the crisis passes, that of the core invisible underclass have nothing to return to.  Their situation is certainly more dire because of the current health/economic crisis, but they were struggling well before it. And yes, they are likely to be further behind afterwards. Whether or not those who are suddenly and newly find themselves in difficulty will return to their former situations after the crisis passes, those who were struggling before are much more likely to find themselves even worse off.  I do wonder how much further children whose families do not have a computer, or even a smartphone, have fallen behind during the period of online classes. Many parents are now in a bind because they can’t go back to work because the nursery schools and kindergartens are only for three days a week.  Yet, it is not clear that employers will allow them to hold on to their jobs, if they don’t come back to work. Those most unable to solve this dilemma are single parents. Those who will lose their jobs will find themselves even further behind.    For now, the government has declared a moratorium on evictions of those who can’t pay their rent. But, that will end one day. The back rent of the unemployed is adding up, and they will have huge debts to pay to avoid eviction.

It is this situation of falling deeper and deeper into a hole that is increasingly impossible ever to get out of, that the sabbatical and jubilee years were designed to prevent.

I want to lift up some of the recent cases being dealt with by the legal clinic of “The Ma’abarah,” sponsored by Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice, the day and night work of Eti Hen, who coordinates the work of the clinic, and the inspiring dedication of the Hebrew University Law School’s legal clinic, who staff our clinic.  Many of the cases we are working on began long before the corona crisis. These are the stories of people who have fallen behind, and will remain there without intervention by a society that sees them. If it is too late for Ibn Ezra’s understanding that we must keep people from falling, perhaps it is not too late for Rashi’s understanding that we can help those who have fallen before they have irreversibly fallen.

“Sarah” (none of the names here are real names) is a single parent on leave without pay as a result of the crisis.  The total unemployment insurance she is receiving is NIS 24 per month because she is also receiving alimony! Of course, the alimony, along with her job, allowed her to barely make ends meet. Now, she is falling further behind. Another parent we are fighting for is in a “much better” situation. She receives NIS 400/month.

Devorah was a battered wife, who eventually fled to a shelter, where she and her three children lived for a year and a half.  They then fled to another city.  Amidar (Israel’s largest public housing agency) told her to go back to her public apartment, and live with her abusive husband.  Luckily, a battered women’s organization has been helping her with ¾ of her rent, but she is unemployed, and living on minimal unemployment benefits. What about the other 1/4? What about food?  After Eti pounded on every possible door, the court has finally demanded that Amidar find her an apartment in the city she is now living in. But, there are hundreds on the waiting list.  Eti says that after somebody told Devorah to call her, she called around midnight.  She says, “When you get a call like that at midnight, you can’t just ignore it. I was abused. I have been there. I won’t quit until Devorah has an apartment.”

Ibn Ezra teaches that the command not to oppress the non-Jew living among us, the widow and the orphan is directed particularly towards the judge, because cry of the weak and powerless is not heard if a judge makes even an innocent mistake (See for example Ibn Ezra’s commentaries to Exodus 23:9 and Deuteronomy 27:19)  Ibn Ezra’s commentary should apply to bureaucrats as well.

Malka is 75.  She was deemed ineligible for public housing because she supposedly had a home. It wasn’t true. Her late father bequeathed his home to another family member.  But, who was going to listen to 75-year-old Malka? We had to fight for two years to prove that she didn’t own a home. She cried when she finally received an apartment, and we hope that her remaining years can be lived at least a little freer from financial worry.

“Tamar” fell into a severe depression after one of her very young children accidentally died. She divorced, and was no longer able to work.  She was not deemed eligible for public housing or rent assistance for herself and her three remaining children, because our social welfare system is often not calibrated according to actual need.  There is a principle that one person cannot receive two types of benefits simultaneously.  Supposedly, it has now been ruled that a single parent can actually receive both alimony and rental assistance, if the situation justifies. However, Tamar was told that she was not eligible as long as her ex-husband was working. Ironically, the fact that her husband is now on leave without pay because of COVID-19 made her eligible for rental assistance.

Ruth just gave birth to her eighth child. Her husband is a yeshiva student.  She worked for a low salary until she gave birth, but for two years didn’t receive a salary supplement. It required a call from a clinic lawyer to a government minister for her to finally receive unemployment benefits

Smedar is a single parent, but there is a rule that a single parent is not eligible for public housing, no matter how poor, if she doesn’t have three children under the age of 18. Smedar’s problem was that her children were not listed on her ID. Because of their poverty, the state placed the children in an institution. However, there was no abuse, they are still her children, they are with her on the Sabbath and holidays, and not being eligible for public housing made it only less likely that she would every return to a situation where she could have them home full time. Finally, we were able to beat the bureaucracy, and get her children put back on her ID. Now she has eligibility, but still needs to wait for an apartment. Remember those long waiting lists?

Anat received a letter from a lawyer saying that she owed NIS 50,000 in back rent. She had to either pay up, or evacuate her public housing apartment.  When one is panic stricken, imagining being on the street, it is difficult to think clearly.  Eti calmed her down, and helped her find the proofs that she had always paid her rent.  Finally, Amidar was convinced that she had paid, and discovered that they had mixed her up with somebody else.

This week’s Torah portions alone don’t give us everything we need to create a more just society, and does not include all of the Jewish wisdom on this topic.  We must also look at the elaborate thought our sages gave to building communal welfare systems as “tzedakah,” justice.  There are additional components to the picture. The principle of familial solidarity must be developed into communal solidarity, and beyond.  However, what we do learn from our portions is to find ways of re-balancing society, rather than justifying inequality as being the fault of those who have made poor choices.  In some of the examples I provided from the work of our clinic, one might ask why some of these individuals deserve our help. That is not the standard the Torah sets for the re-balancing to take place in the jubilee year.  The fact that people share responsibility for their situation, and that there are behaviors we need to educate against and discourage, does not absolve us from our responsibilities. Furthermore, Ibn Ezra teaches us that to be aware of those who are largely invisible in our prosperous society, and to actively work to aid those on the brink, before they fall.

Finally, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (19th century) notes the parallel between the counting of the omer and the Jubilee.  We count the omer between leaving Egypt and receiving the Revelation at Sinai on the 50th day, after counting 7 sabbaths representing 49 days. We arrive at the  jubilee in the 50th year, after 7 sabbatical years representing 7 years each. He argues that the counting of the omer is about our recognition as individuals of God’s Sovereignty, bring us to a state of what he terms “moral liberty”(kherut musarit) as we prepare to accept the Law at Sinai. The seven sabbatical years bring us to “Internal state freedom” (kherut midinit pnimit) making the state worthy of the jubilee.

Israel has transformed over the years from a society with a very small gap between rich and poor, into a society with one of the largest gaps in the world. As we continue to count the omer and continue towards Sinai, and as we read of the sabbatical and jubilee years, may we rededicate ourselves morally and spiritually to work for a re-balanced world and society in which every person counts, every person is seen and assisted before they fall, where nobody permanently falls behind, and that those who for whatever reasons have become the underclass are returned to a restored ability to live dignified lives fully sharing the blessings of God’s World.

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 and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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