Parashas Behar, Part 2

The blog directory service BlogCatalog has designated May 15 as “Bloggers Unite for Human Rights” day. Clearly the Torah supports the notion of social conscience; indeed, the Torah is the leading basic source for this notion. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is there a discussion of “human rights.” The Torah discusses responsibilities, not rights. The emphasis is not on what a person can demand for himself, but rather on what is demanded of him. If people would adopt this outlook, we would see better progress on the issues typically raised under the heading of “human rights.” This is my contribution to BlogCatalog’s human rights campaign.
The latter part of this week’s parashah deals with the responsibility of caring for the poor. The Torah states (Vayikra 25:35): “If your brother becomes impoverished, and he falters financially in your midst, you must bolster him – [this includes a] convert or resident gentile – so that he may survive along with you.” The Midrash comments (Vayikra Rabbah 34:5):
Rabbi Tanchum the son of Rabbi Chiya expounded: “‘When seeing good fortune, be glad – and when seeing bad fortune, realize that God also brought about this, in parallel with the other …’ (Koheles 7:14, in a somewhat homiletical rendering). If misfortune strikes your fellow, see how you can provide for him and sustain him, so that you may receive due reward.” And thus it was with Rabbi Tanchum the son of Rabbi Chiya: when his mother would go to the market to get him a litra of meat, she would buy him two – one for him and one for the poor. This was in keeping with the saying “this, in parallel with the other.” The Holy One Blessed Be He made rich people and poor people, so that these could provide for those.
The simple meaning of this Midrash is that some people are granted wealth because others are poor. If poverty did not exist, then wealth would not exist either; instead, everyone would simply receive what they need for their sustenance.
The Maggid, in his commentary on Ruth 1:2, explains the Midrash as follows. According to the dictates of strict justice, Hashem should give each person day by day exactly what he needs to survive the day. This is how it was when the Jewish People lived on manna: each person, no matter how much he tried to collect, was left in the end with precisely what he needed, no more and no less (Shemos 16:17-18). And this is in fact how it should be: ideally, people should trust in Hashem to provide their immediate needs moment by moment, like a baby suckling from its mother (cf. Tehillim 131:2). But, human nature being as it is, most people cannot live this way. Only the exalted few have such whole-hearted faith in Hashem’s providence. The average person would die worrying about how he will make it through the next day.
Hashem therefore devised a brilliant strategy whereby He can accommodate the average person and still allow strict justice to operate. The system is that most people are granted extra assets, but some people are made poor and receive only the bare minimum needed for survival. The poor bear the burden of strict justice, so that the well-off can receive the great measure of Divine generosity that they do. In effect, the poor are doing the well-off a service: the poor absorb afflictions that the well-off would otherwise suffer. Thus, simple common sense calls for the well-off to care for the poor. And the extra assets that the well-off are granted are intended precisely for this purpose.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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