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Behar-Bechukotai 5769-2009

“Impoverishment: In those Days, in these Times”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


Until the recent financial meltdown, it was difficult to conceive of impoverishment, especially in the Jewish community. The economic collapse has demonstrated to all the fragility of wealth, and that those who possess great wealth today may become extremely poor, almost overnight. Impoverishment is exactly what parashat Behar, the first of this week’s double parashiot, Behar and Bechukotai, speaks about.

On repeated occasions throughout the parasha, we encounter the expression, “Kee yah’mooch ah’chee’cha,” If your brother becomes impoverished.

The first occurrence is found in Leviticus 25:25, where the Torah states: “Kee ya’mooch ah’chee’cha, oo’ma’char may’ah’choo’zah’toh,” If your brother becomes impoverished and must sell his ancestral land, his family members who are closest to him must redeem what their brother has sold.

In Leviticus 25:35, again we are told, “V’chee ya’mooch ah’chee’cha, oo’mah’tah yah’doh ee’mach,” If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter. The Torah explains that since he is in your proximity, you must strengthen him, whether he be a proselyte or a resident, so that he can live together with you. Furthermore, it is forbidden to charge the impoverished person interest or to gain in any way from food that is given to him.

In Leviticus 25:39, we read, “V’chee ya’mooch ah’chee’cha ee’mach, v’nim’kar lach,” If your brother becomes impoverished with you and is sold to you [as a Hebrew servant], you shall not work him as a slave laborer. You must treat him properly.

And finally, in Leviticus 25:47, we read, “V’chee tah’sig yahd gayr v’toh’shav ee’mach, oo’mach ah’chee’cha ee’mo,” and if a [non-Jewish] sojourner who resides with you shall become wealthy, and your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to an alien who resides with you…one of his brothers must redeem him.

The expressions, “Yah’mooch” and “oo’mach,” which keep repeating, bear elucidation. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) suggests that the root of the word derives from the Hebrew term that means soft or liquid, implying that the person’s fortune has dwindled or melted away. Others interpret it to mean “crushed,” suggesting that a person who loses his means of livelihood or his life’s savings is crushed, not only materially, but spiritually and emotionally.

The laws of charity that are found in the Torah and codified in the Code of Jewish Law are extensive and rather remarkable. The positive commandment to give as much charity as one can afford is reiterated frequently in the Torah. G-d also warns in Deuteronomy 15:7, that one may not harden his heart or shut his hand from a poor brother. Jewish tradition strongly encourages Jews to give charity by affirming that no one ever becomes poor from giving charity, nor will harm result from its practice. In fact, Jewish philosophy maintains that all wealth really belongs to G-d, and that a person is granted wherewithal only in order to execute the will of G-d who has entrusted His funds with the possessor. One is even allowed, indeed encouraged, to test G-d’s promise to reward those who give charity (based on Malachi 3:10).

Every Jew is required to give charity, even an impoverished person who lives on the dole. One must also give charity in a pleasant manner. One who gives charity in an unfriendly or angry manner, loses the merit of the mitzvah.

The Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah, Chapters 247-259) describes the remarkable extent of Jewish charity requirements. One must provide for the full needs of the poor. If they are hungry, they must be fed. If they need to be covered, they must be clothed. If they have no furnishings, they must be helped to furnish their homes. Even if the impoverished person was accustomed to ride a horse with a servant leading him when he was wealthy, he must be supported in the manner in which he was accustomed. The Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572) explains that these obligations fall upon the leaders who are in charge of the communal charity funds, and not necessarily individuals.

These extraordinary rules are most relevant today as we behold the terrible suffering in the current challenging economic climate. The impact of poverty is even more painful when people suffer not because of poor business decisions, but as a result of deceit and criminality. It is particularly abhorrent when the perpetrator of such crimes are Jews, such as Bernard Madoff, and a high profile Jew to boot!

We have all heard of Madoff victims who lost their lifesavings, their pensions, and virtually all their possessions. We’ve read interviews and seen video footage of retirees who were forced to return to work, including one 90 year old man who now works as a greeter in a supermarket because he was left impoverished. It is painful to watch, and the actions of Bernard Madoff are inexcusable, and beyond reproach.

But the Torah, in parashat Behar, points out repeatedly, “V’chee ya’mooch ah’chee’cha,” If your brother, if your fellow human being, will be crushed, emphasizing the extensiveness of the loss. Why is the idea so dramatically emphasized by the use of the word “crushed”? As has been noted, many of Madoff’s victims lost their lifesavings, but the vast majority (with a few exceptions) are left with “reasonable” amounts of money, many will receive up to $500,000 from federal insurance, and many own homes or apartments that are often worth many millions of dollars. They may be “crushed” emotionally, but few are “crushed” financially.

But what about the victims of the subprime mortgage debacle? Banks and lending companies had dispensed loans like candy to little children who couldn’t say no. They knew the borrowers were not capable of paying back! In most instances, they didn’t care that the loans would not be repaid, as long as the lending officers received their hefty fees for processing the transactions. Many, if not most, of the victims of the subprime mortgages are “little people” who have lost their homes or apartments, some are even living in public shelters or in tent cities. They really have nothing, they are truly “crushed,” both financially and emotionally, and are left with little or no hope.

Not nearly as much attention has been paid to these victims as to the Madoff victims, even though they are hundreds of times more numerous.

Furthermore, it is rare that we read condemnations of the lenders, bankers, or the mortgage companies who schemed to defraud the system. Few have been indicted or sent to prison. It could be because the subprime mortgage fraud was a systemic problem and so widespread that it is difficult to point a finger at any single individual who was responsible for the billions of dollars of losses, while it is easy to point a finger at Bernard Madoff. Or it may be that the “little people” have few who will advocate for them. Ironically, not only have many of the bank presidents not been removed, but they have, in fact, been rewarded with abundant federal bailout money.

This is a far cry from the system that Jews know as Tzedakah. Tzedakah doesn’t mean charity, but righteousness and justice. Something is very wrong when dishonest people get away with cheating many thousands of victims and there is no accountability or punishment. And something is even more awry when citizens of this country are forced to become collaborators with a government that rewards these dishonest individuals and institutions using taxpayer funds.

We can learn much from the Code of Jewish Law’s requirement to sustain a poor person even to the extent of maintaining the impoverished in the same lifestyle that they had been accustomed to before becoming poor. We must be concerned with all those who have been defrauded, whether rich or poor. Our hearts must go out to even those Madoff victims who are left with substantial resources, but whose spirits have been broken. After all, it is not only the poverty, not only the lack of funds, it is the crushing of the spirit of an individual with which the Torah is concerned. It is the loss of essential human dignity about which the Torah cares. That can not be replaced by the remaining resources, no matter how significant, or by unemployment insurance, even if it is extended indefinitely.

A cogent argument may be made that the essential dignity of the character of the thief must also be taken into consideration. By excusing the thief, by pardoning the thief, and by rewarding the thief we cause the thief to feel no remorse, destroying the dignity of his spirit. To the contrary, he will think that he is being excused or rewarded because of something “good” he has done, resulting in a fundamental breakdown of the values in our society.

This malaise can not be healed easily. A civilization that engages in such practices can not recover or restore itself to health. Far more than the financial challenge, this may very well be the greatest challenge that we face today.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start Monday night, May 11, and continue all day Tuesday, May 12, 2009. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a festival because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.