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Poverty

In the middle of Parshat Behar we read about our obligations towards our fellow Jews when they are reduced to poverty. The Torah uses the term "Collapsed" or "Clowered" (mem, vav, chaf). It also describes the person as having lost the means to deal with his obligations (u-matah yado Cimmakh). When this happens we are not supposed to protect the person from experiencing the logical consequences of poverty, nor are we to force him out of the community. In fact, we have an obligation to maintain this person within the community. In later text, Mishnah, Talmud, and Mishnah Torah, for example, it is explained in greater detail what it means specifically to "let him live by your side" (Leviticus 25:35).

This humanitarian note regarding the treatment of impoverish souls comes within the larger context of discussing theoretical strategies for maintaining economic balance within society. These include the sabbatical ("shmitah") year of rest and jubilee year when debts are forgiven, slaves freed and property reverts back to original owners. (The laws of the jubilee year are generally considered to be ideals rather than actual laws that were never enacted). In the midst of a theoretical discussion about poverty the Torah inserts a very practical and humanistic reminder: "let him", who is impoverish, "live by your side". To let live by your side, must at a minimum, mean to let him remain an active part of the community and not merely a burden to be shouldered or endured.

One might argue that discussions of economics and poverty ought to be a part of the Book of Exodus and not Leviticus. The Book of Exodus lays out the legislative system of the Israelite society. The Book of Leviticus is about maintaining the holiness of our structures and how we cleanse them (keep ritually clean) and ourselves. On closer examination, however, we see the wisdom to the placement. Throughout Leviticus we are repeatedly commanded to act in certain ways because God commanded it so. We are commanded to act in holy ways that we do necessarily understand, such as kashrut. In Parshat Behar we are commanded to act compassionately with regards to economic considerations because as the Torah says: "I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt..." (Leviticus 25:38). Thus, by placing the care and concern of the economically disadvantaged within the context of Leviticus, the statutes concerning the poor are themselves raised to a level of holiness.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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