By Rabbi Matthew Soffer, Temple Israel of Boston

In this week’s portion we encounter what is the Torah’s most unequivocal statement on economic justice. It reads, and I’ll excerpt the passage, for the sake of brevity:

Efes ki lo yih’yeh b’cha evyon – There shall be absolutely no poor among you—since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed Adonai your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I give to you this day….
However, if there is a needy person among you, one of your kinspeople in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsperson. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him enough for whatever he needs.
And beware, lest you hold in your heart the base thought that says “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” and you end up being mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. This person will cry out to God against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily, and have no regrets when you do so, for in return Adonai your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.
Because the poor will never cease from your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:1–11)

This statement is loaded, it begs for a 45 minute sermon.  But I’ve been taught that a good sermon really needs 3 things: #1 a good beginning, #2 a good ending, and #3 the assurance that #1 and #2 are as close together as humanly possible.

This famous statement on economic justice found in this week’s portion, Parashat Re’eh, has puzzled commentators throughout history, particularly because of inherent contradiction in the text – the declarative statement that there must not be poor people in the Land — that’s a commandment, meaning it’s on YOU to ensure that there are no needy– and then the recognition that there may be needy so this how you should act.  Now, we might reconcile the two in a variety of ways.  But the text goes even further, “ki lo yechdal evyon mikerev haaretz— the poor will never cease from the land!”

So to rephrase, three commandments:
1) There must not be poverty in your midst.
2) If there is poverty, fix it – you’re accountable.
3) There will always be poverty.

What kind of Covenant is this?  A commandment that we’re given, followed by the Divine proclamation that we have to fulfill it– and will never fulfill it.  Is this some kind of trap?

Perhaps.  But perhaps it’s a reflection on the tension between Divine law and human nature, between the world-as-it-should-be and the-world-as-it-is.  God dictates the world-as-it-should-be, but the-world-as-it-is… is dictated by human behavior.  The human being.

So let’s consider this: What does this text suggest about human nature?

When we read political part of the Bible, such as this, we can assume: if there’s a law, there’s a reason for it, a necessity for it. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
This was not a novel idea, he was likely drawing on the words of John Calvin, who said two centuries prior:

If we were like angels, blameless and freely able to exercise perfect self-control, we would not need rules or regulations. Why, then, do we have so many laws and statutes? Because of man’s wickedness, for he is constantly overflowing with evil; this is why a remedy is required.

This Calvinist polemic, like it or not, resonates among our biblical stories.  From the very beginning, human beings mess up: Adam lies, Cain kills, Noah turns his back on humanity.  As a colleague of mine often says, “Reading these stories, you would never want your children to be like our biblical ancestors.” Abraham shows faith by offering to slaughter his son. Isaac spends the rest of his life traumatized and mostly silent. His wife Rebecca deceives him, conspiring with their son Jacob who cheats and steals the birthright and blessings from his brother Esau (who’s really hairy by the way).  Let’s not even get started on Jacob’s kids (wouldn’t want to ruin act II of Lloyd Weber’s musical).

Throughout the Exodus, we see similarly dreary views on human nature.  Moses’ reluctance, Aaron’ and the Israelite’s betrayal of God at Sinai.  Suffice it to say, if a text can “think,” as literary scholars often urge readers to consider, then this text of ours thinks very little of the human being.

And the Rabbis picked up on this in the Rabbinic Period.  They knew Torah like the back of their hands.

In the Midrash, Genesis Rabbah (8:5), Rabbi. Simon taught that when God came to createadam, the human, the angels argued with each other, vociferously.  They were divided into 2 camps, with one arguing, “the human being must not be created!” and the other side saying, “the human being must be created!” While they were arguing, God created the human being and said then said to the angels, “what are you arguing about— it’s already done!”

The argument, of course, is whether human beings are good or bad – whether or not Calvin gets it right.  But for the Rabbis who told this story, the question was different.  And for us as well, the question is:
How do we deal with the duality of our nature. And I mean this not philosophically, but in the most practical, realistic ways. How do we reconcile our potential to love each other – and show our love through actions, generosity, forgiveness, kindness, empathy and laughter…. with our propensity to bend toward sin, selfishness, cruelty, humiliation, lies, even murder?  What does it mean to be human?  This duality makes its way into our everyday language, when we say:
“I’m only human!” vs. 
“How can I be more human” 

Well, which is it?

That is the question that we begin focusing on tomorrow night.  Tomorrow begins the month of Elul, the final month before Rosh HaShanah, our Jewish New Year.  The hard work of the New Year in Judaism is called “teshuvah,” often translated as “repentance,” but literally it means, “turning or returning.”

Turning from “I’m only human” to “how can I be more humane.”  And this hard work that goes into the New Year does not begin on Rosh HaShanah— it begins now.

The month of Elul is known as a period of deep introspection, a period of apology, forgiveness, goal setting, hoping, and yearning.  This is hard work, and it requires vulnerability.  There is no other way to begin without the willingness to look in the mirror honestly.

To notice when our hands are closed so we can open them;

to see when our eyes are resentful, so we can fill them with compassion;

to hear when our hearts harbor thoughts that will make our deeds neglectful towards our brothers and sisters, near and far.

An 18th century Hasidic master Reb Simcha Bunim famously taught that we should keep two slips of paper at all times — one in each pocket.  One should say, “Bishvili nivra ha’olam– the world was create for my sake.”  The other slip should read, “Anochi afar va’efer– I am dust and ashes.”  The most important part is knowing when to pull out which slip of paper.

Living in the month of Elul involves a vacillation between both slips of paper.  And it’s not easy.  How do we lower ourselves to the ground?  How do we lift ourselves up?  What does it mean for each of us, who is only “only human,” to be “more human”?

Welcome to the month of Elul.

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