Is Welfare a Jewish Issue?

Sermon given May 23, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

I was a very difficult Bar Mitzvah student. I feel so sorry for the Assistant Rabbi who had the thankless job of working with me on my speech. Even now, when I see him at rabbinical conventions, I feel like running to hide. Twenty-one years ago, on this very Shabbat, I read the same Torah portion that Sam will read tomorrow. Unlike Sam, though, I told the rabbi that I didn’t want to talk about the Torah portion. Everyone did that. I thought that the portion was boring, and I wanted to be different. Eventually, the rabbi relented.

Sam can tell you, and in fact he will tell you tomorrow, that this week’s Torah portion is deeply meaningful and relevant. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem applicable to us at all, since it pertains primarily to agriculture and to slaves. Most of us aren’t farmers, and slavery has been abolished. Moreover, even the most Orthodox Jews of today argue that the laws of this week’s portion are not currently in force, and will not be observed until the messianic age arrives.

So maybe I was right all those years ago, and Sam is wrong. This portion may be out of date and meaningless to the modern Jew. Let’s take a closer look.

Imagine the children of Israel. They escaped slavery in Egypt, and have wandered in the desert for forty years. As they prepare to enter their Promised Land, they are told that each and every family will receive a land holding of equal value. That land will be theirs forever.

Throughout the ancient world, though, people customarily sold their land if they needed food or other goods. Land was just about their only form of wealth. No money was in the bank. Therefore, God tells them that they may sell their land, but not permanently. Every fifty years, a jubilee would be declared. All land would return to its original owners. Everyone would get a fresh start, and equality would be restored.

Three principles emerge from this commandment. First, we learn that the land does not ultimately belong to its mortal owners. The land, representing all wealth, indeed all material possession, belongs to God. In this portion, God asserts ownership by claiming the right to distribute and re-distribute wealth as God sees fit. This principle may trouble those Texas land owners who stridently claim the primacy of individual land owners’ rights, not to mention the talk-show callers who claim that all taxation is thievery. The Torah clearly establishes that achieving God’s purpose takes precedence over allowing individuals to hold on to whatever property or wealth they have acquired.

Second, the Torah establishes economic equality as the ideal toward which society should strive. Here, the Torah seems to call not just for equal economic opportunity, but for equal results. None should be dramatically richer or poorer than another.

The third principle of these jubilee laws, though, is quite different from the first two. Economic equality is not to be re-established every day, or even every year, but rather only every fiftieth year. From this we may infer that neither God nor community can be expected to clean up after each of our misfortunes or mistakes. Between jubilees, individual Israelites were responsible for their own economic situations, and could fall into abject poverty. A large measure of personal responsibility was required. There are consequences to our actions. Each of us is, in large measure, responsible for our own financial well-being.

As we examine our American society today, and particularly the debate over welfare reform, the Torah seems, simultaneously and paradoxically, to give comfort to both sides. Some may trumpet the portion’s principles of equality, and of the right to re-apportion wealth for the greater good. Those who would restrict welfare, on the other hand, may point to the portion’s value of personal responsibility. Others may argue that religion has nothing at all to say about matters of politics and economics like welfare reform. Only this last group is absolutely wrong.

The teachings of Judaism are not restricted to matters of ritual and worship, to the celebration of holidays and the proper conduct of life cycle ceremonies. The Torah is a guide for all aspects of our lives, even providing teachings relevant to the debate over welfare reform.

From this week’s portion, we learn that welfare is both noble and justified. God desires greater equality. God demands that we who have property must be willing to give some of it away, for it is ultimately not our own. At the same time, we learn that those who have fallen upon hard times can not expect welfare to redress their difficulties completely. Welfare reform that requires the able-bodied to work is supported by the personal responsibility principle of this portion.

Other provisions of the Torah speak to related issues. We may not stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. The failure to provide adequate health care, child care, and education is a violation of God’s will. We must be mindful of the stranger, for we have known the fate of the foreigner in the harshest of measures. Welfare reform that penalizes legal aliens is therefore not acceptable to Jews. We are commanded to treat the alien in our midst just like the native-born. And if we advocate on behalf of Jewish legal immigrants, then surely we must advocate on behalf of non-Jews as well.

Scholars tell us that some of the laws of the jubilee were probably never actually put into effect. Re-establishing total economic equality every fifty years proved impossible. Perhaps we should call it messianic.

To be Jewish is to commit one’s self constantly to working toward a better wold, even a messianic age. Surely, economic equality is part of that hope, that dream which we may not fully achieve, but of which we may never despair.

Tomorrow, Sam will read the most famous line from this portion, words that are engraved on our nation’s Liberty Bell: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants.” In context, in the Torah, the word “liberty” refers to the utter restoration of equality, mandated by God. Our American patriots achieved a measure of that liberty some 220 years ago. May we, as individuals and as a nation, continue to work toward the ultimate realization of God’s will.