Parshat Behar: How Much Are We Worth?
This past week I attended a reception at the home of Israel’s Consul General to New York, Danny Dayan. Our guest speaker was Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council. As the reception was sponsored by the New York Board of Rabbis (of which I am on the Board of Governors), Johnson talked about his recent trip to Israel. Of more local concern, the Speaker also talked about two pressing issues for the city: Homelessness and poverty. The number of homeless people living in the city is alarming; the percentage of New Yorkers living at or below the poverty line is even more disturbing. Speaker Johnson did not sugarcoat the challenges ahead. He did outline a couple of proposed legislative measures to at least make a renewed attempt to eradicate both of these tragic realities.
The disease of poverty is unfortunately a world wide condition. Impoverished families not only experience economic deprivation, but a total loss of honor and dignity. Eliminating poverty, therefore, will not only assure a steady and cherished income, but will restore one’s self-respect.
The Torah reading of Behar is all about respect: It describes indentured servants who pay off personal debts by working for other Israelites or non-resident aliens. The Torah here is emphatic about servants not remaining slaves in perpetuity (although elsewhere in the Torah such is not the case). They must be treated as dignified hired workers, human beings in every extent. When an individual is forced to sell property because of personal debt, that property can later be redeemed – bought by someone from the individual’s clan. In this manner, the property will remain within the family. The prevailing theme in Behar, therefore, is sustaining the dignity of all people, even those in financial straits. We do not take advantage of neighbors who already bear the scars of being in debt. As the Torah states: Ultimately all Israelites are servants to God and not to each other.
The Torah’s objective is to instruct us in the values of honor, kindness, generosity and sensitivity. As the Madoff ponzi scheme sadly illustrated, personal comfort and affluence are not guaranteed. Each of us needs to be mindful of those who are down on their luck, for one day we or our families may unexpectedly find ourselves in a similar predicament.
Judaism teaches us that we are not promised a life of affluence. It does demand that each of us treats our family members, our neighbors and all people around us with the honor and respect we would demand in return.