Parshat Ki Tavo
- Shabbat Shalom
- In the ancient world, all contracts and treaties would have a similar conclusion. After stating the terms of the agreement between both parties, there is a long list of curses called down upon anyone who would violate the terms of the agreement. As we are now approaching the end of the Torah, following ancient custom, there is a long list of curses and dooms called down upon the Jewish people if they should ever violate this covenant they have made with God. It is not the most beautiful part of the Torah, in fact, as you have seen, we read it quickly and quietly; but if you take the time to read it, it is quite effective in listing the awful things that come when we do not follow what God wants us to do.
- Maybe, as we read this list of curses, we shake our heads and mutter that we don’t believe in that kind of a God anymore. We don’t believe in a God that punishes us for every sin, for every mistake that we make. We don’t want a God who punishes, we prefer a God who supports us in our moments of weakness and who forgives and pardons our transgressions. What kind of a God would bring these disasters down on humanity, punishing the good along side of the bad? There is no escaping the curses that are pronounced. When war and famine come, it not only consumes the saints with the sinners, it also consumes the innocent children and animals as well. What kind of a God punishes the innocent along with the guilty?
- God might not punish the innocent with the guilty but that certainly is the history of humanity. When just a few of us sin, it is all of society that suffers. Only one company dumped toxic waste into the Love Canal 50 years ago, but the entire community that lived on its banks had to be uprooted and houses built there had to be destroyed. One country, China, still burns fossil fuel without cleaning the sulfur from the smoke, but that sulfur drifts on the winds of the upper atmosphere and falls as acid rain on the forests and trees here in the United States. An obscure agreement between the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan and the terrorist organization Al Queda, was of no concern to anyone in the world until the terrorists hijacked and flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center.
- Newsweek reported that the wildfires in Texas burning since December of 2010, have now consumed 3.6 million acres. That is an area that is close to the size of the state of Connecticut. Over 700 homes have been burned and four people have lost their lives. Newsweek goes on to say that six of the largest fires in Texas history have occurred this year. Why has this national tragedy occurred? Maybe it is because the Governor of Texas has cut funding for the volunteer firefighters, who are the first responders to these fires, by a whopping 75%. When we don’t have enough firefighters, why are we surprised when we have towering wildfires?
- Newsweek also reported that the Governor of New Jersey is complaining that retired teachers in his state are getting pensions of $35,000 a year that the state has to pay. I don’t know why he is so unhappy that they are receiving those pensions. After all, not only did they earn the pension but they are responsible for the high school students in New Jersey having the highest Advanced Placement test scores in the nation. Would good teachers teach in New Jersey if they don’t have decent benefits to cover their retirement?
- What really got me angry this week, was Sen. Ron Paul at the debate in Tampa on Monday. He was asked if a 30 year old who did not have health insurance and who became seriously ill, if society had any responsibility to that person. Ron Paul replied that the man made his decision and the country has no responsibility to heal him at all. It is not the government’s job to take care of the uninsured.
- We can have a great discussion about whether or not government in this country is too big or too small. That would be a fantastic discussion. But to say that government has NO role to play in society is not just foolish, it is dangerous. It is dangerous to people who make poor choices and it is dangerous to those of us who try to follow all the rules. We all suffer when our government does not do its job. Judaism rightly points out that we need to pray on behalf of the government because without it, people would devour each other alive.
- I want to be very clear; Judaism teaches us that government has responsibilities for the people and we have responsibilities for government. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, philosopher, author and bio-ethicist, lists, in order of importance, how Judaism sees the role that government is supposed to play. The first role of government is to redeem captives, especially women who are in danger of physical violation and those at risk of death. Second, government is responsible for medical care for people who need it, and this cost is more important than raising money to build a synagogue. Life and health take precedence over all other communal priorities. Third comes food for the poor. Fourth is clothing and housing for the poor. In the Middle East where the weather is moderate, clothing and housing are not as important as food. In North America, where there are very cold winters, this need is more urgent. Fifth comes money for the dowry for indigent brides and last is whatever is necessary to sustain a person’s dignity.
- In addition, the Jewish community, when it governed itself, provided ways to prevent poverty. There were strict commercial rules that regulated how much profit a person could make on food and essential items being sold. There were also rules on how quickly laborers should be paid. They preferred that people work for their living and not live off the public till. Rather than give charity, often loans and or aid to help keep someone employed were better ways to preserve the dignity of those in distress.
- Since everyone has these responsibilities to the poor, it becomes the duty of the community to gather the resources and provide for the poor on behalf of everyone. In effect, the Jewish community taxed its residents to provide a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter and a tzedaka collective to support those who need money or other supplies. The responsibility of how much to contribute was dependent on income. The more you earned, the more you owed. Even those who received charity were required to give charity. Those who could give more, were required to give more. Those who refused to give could be forced by the courts to give or their property could be confiscated.
- These responsibilities are, first of all, a moral requirement. What separates us from animals is that we don’t leave our wounded, sick or elderly behind. It may be OK for a heard of antelope or wolves to weed out the sick and injured. It is not OK for human beings. We believe that we are all created in the image of God and that nobody is more deserving than anyone else. We don’t ration food or health care so that those who can’t afford it are left out. All Jews are responsible for each other. That is a fundamental part of our faith.
- There is also a practical reason to provide for the poor. The poor are more likely to contract serious diseases that could affect all of public health. Do you remember the SARS scare in the 1990’s? It was so communicable that many people caught it from those who were waiting with them in hospital waiting rooms. When we make sure that everyone has proper health care we are preventing the uncontrolled spread of disease.
- The same applies to doctors, firefighters and police officers. If we no longer provide an adequate number of professionals in our community, we should not be surprised by increases in disease, wildfires and crime. These also are the duties of government; we certainly don’t want private security or local vigilantes in charge of crime prevention. According to the Torah, the communal leaders had to offer a sacrifice if there was an unsolved murder in their jurisdiction. It was a penalty for not providing enough security for strangers and residents.
- Let us never forget that there is a purpose for government. Our constitution teaches us that we have formed this union to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. For both Jewish and American law, we rely on our government to provide justice, fairness, a social safety net, security and freedom. I know that there are some today that say that the best government is one that stays out of the way. But that is not how Judaism sees the world. Judaism teaches us that government is the one resource that makes freedom and liberty possible. Nobody likes taxes and rules about how to live our lives. And maybe our government has gotten carried away in both areas. That is also a good debate to have from time to time. But when we pray for the government, we are praying that it does its job with justice and that it acts with rightful authority. Without government humanity has known only chaos.
- As a rabbi, I must teach the important role that government plays in our lives. Ron Paul is entitled to his opinion, but as Jews, we must and should support the government in its duty to give aid to the poor, the homeless, the sick and the aged. That is our duty as Jews, as Americans and as human beings. Let us not get lost in campaign rhetoric and forget our responsibilities to others. That would be a crime against our humanity and a sin against God.
May God bless us with a good government that supports those in need of support and gives opportunity for all. May God bless us and our country as we say …
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM