This is a dvar I gave for Parsha Re’eh on August 16 2014
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we read in Deuteronomy 15: “There shall be no needy among you…then in a few verses later it reads– If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kingsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. ….For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and the needy in your land.”
These statements contradict each other—how can the Torah say There shall be no needy among you and then say there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.
Even more importantly, we have God’s instructions on how we should relate to the needy and the poor in our society and what our obligations towards them are. We need to be reminded that it is only if we embrace our responsibility to keep the commandment to support the poor that there will cease to be needy people amongst us –And God will not take care of it for us.
One of my teachers Rabbi Jill Jacobs suggests that the overarching Jewish attitude toward the poor is best summoned up by a single word of the biblical text: אחיך “your brother.” With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.
By telling us that the poor person is our sibling, our brother, the Torah reminds us that, like us, a poor person is made in the image of God and should be treated as such. It also prevents us from separating ourselves from him or her, from seeing ourselves as somehow inherently different from the poor.
This Parsha reminds us of our duty towards the poor. The Poor are our siblings for whom we must care. We have an infinite responsibility for the Other.
Each of us alone might not be able to eradicate poverty but by embracing our responsibility as individuals, as part of a community, of society, we can bring our world closer to the vision of there shall be no needy. This parsha teaches us that together we will make a difference in this world if we take care of each other or take care of our brothers and sisters because this is God’s will —
You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers, or one of the strangers who are in your land inside your gates;
At his day you shall give him his wages, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and his life depends upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord and it be a sin for you. [translation by Artscroll, adapted] -Deuteronomy 24:14-15
לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק שָׂכִיר עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחֶיךָ אוֹ מִגֵּרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצְךָ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ:
בְּיוֹמוֹ תִתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ וְלֹא תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי עָנִי הוּא וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ וְלֹא יִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל ה’ וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא:
This week I started my Fellowship at T’ruah and my internship at Community Voices Heard (CVH), a member organization of low-income people. The environment is pretty diverse; brown people, white people, Jews, non jews, LGBT folks and straight folks. In other words the perfect environment for me, especially after spending the last year in a mostly privelged white environment.
My first day at work, like most jobs was an orientation that included the cool history of CVH and watching this amazing documentory, A Days Work, A Days Pay, that featured the organization. The film gave me some insight on New York’s Work Experience Program (WEP), where welfare recipents are forced to work in city-run programs for well below the prevailing wage. Common sense says that it should be illegal for the government to make poor people work for less than the legal minum wage, but it contines to happen. The WEP participants have also been deprived of basic labor rights, and must concede to what is demanded of them or lose their below minimum wage income and be kicked off welfare. This a lot of power and as one can imagine people in this system have suffered abuses and CVH continues to push to end these types of programs, that push for “work first” over education and training which result in people staying in a cycle of constant poverty. And trying to end policies where welfare recipents provide free labor around the state of New York. Further proving at least to me that the United States continues to look for slave/cheap labor and exploites the poor. If you work you should get paid a fair wage for a days work.
Watching A Days Work, A Days Pay gave me some insight into the real-life impact that a social policy can have on human beings. I was also able to comprehend the effort required for low income people to transform themselves from the victims of the system to fully empowered citizens who take control of their own lives.
I spent the rest of the week at CVH learning more about the members of the organization, calling residents of public housing to remind them about a mayoral forum coming up in the following week (New York is set to elect another mayor, Bloomberg has been in office for 12 years), sitting in on a meeting with members of CVH, a leader the DC37 Labor Union and protesting with Intern Labor Rights and CVH at the United Nations Headquarters. Trying to bring attention to the exploitation of unpaid labor/interns at the United Nations.
I have spent a great deal of time studying poverty, working on issues that affect the poor but usually from a privileged place. This week reminded me of why I have focused on these issues; to help people. And I believe when this summer is over I will not only have a better understanding of what it means to work for human rights, I will also have a better understanding of myself and grow as a human being.