Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Yovel and Poverty Alleviation - Nami Lieberman

Seth, Nami, Zeke and Beth
Mazel tov to Nami Janus Lieberman and to her family Rabbi Beth Janus, Seth and Zeke. Nami became a bat mitzvah on Shabbat May 12 and we proudly share her Davar Torah, and will be sharing future b'nei mitzvah words of Torah!

Shabbat Shalom. This week’s double Parsha is B’har B’hukotai. When the Israelites originally entered Israel after the Exodus, each family was assigned a plot of land. This Torah portion explains the many rules about the land. There would be six days of work, and then one day of rest. Similarly, there would be six years to work the land and one year to let it rest. In the rest year, the people could only eat what was already grown. After seven seven year cycles, there would be a year called the Yovel or Jubilee. In the Yovel year, the land would not be worked, Jewish slaves would be freed, and everyone would return to their holding. That means that every family would go back to the land that was designated for them many years before. If someone gained more property or wealth, they were obligated to give back to people who lost property and wealth.

            The Yovel year, every fiftieth year, particularly stood out to me. Several things are left unclear. The plan is mentioned briefly, but the Torah doesn’t revisit the idea later on. Was the custom of everyone returning to their original property ever observed? We have no evidence either way. If this system was ever used, it would get rid of poverty every fifty years. So why does it say later, in Deuteronomy 15:11 “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.”?

            If the Yovel was not observed, was it supposed to be? What can we do to reduce or abolish poverty? The underlying question is: what is the purpose of the Yovel year if not to eradicate poverty? Some commentators say that the Yovel year actually harmed the poorer people because they could not work the land.

            What’s the point of the Yovel year and other forms of giving if we’re not going to solve all poverty problems? Why do something if we can’t do everything? We should do something because for those few people that we do help, we make a big difference.  If we all help as much as we can, maybe there is a possibility that things can change. By giving to others, we set examples for our peers. Eventually, many people are doing the right thing because of one small action. So we should do what we can, even if it won’t make a broad difference itself, because it can inspire everyone around you to do the same.

            Many famous rabbis and commentators have struggled to understand the purpose of the Yovel. Rashi says that these rest years are created for one main purpose, to let the land rest. He knew that crops grew better right after the rest years. I don’t like Rashi’s explanation because he doesn’t focus on the consequences for the people. Rambam gives two reasons for the rest years. One is the agricultural benefit and the other is that these years actually help needy people. He says that the acts of freeing slaves, canceling debts, and making sure needy people have food were created to teach sympathy towards others. If everyone saw how much needy people were being helped during these times, then maybe they would be encouraged to help in the future. I agree with Rambam because he acknowledges that the Yovel helps crops grow, but he also focuses on how it can make people better. Nehama Leibowitz says that the Yovel year was designed to keep an even distribution of wealth, thus helping the poor people. I like this opinion too because while we can always help people who don’t have enough, many people do not help them. However, I think that the benefits to the land are also key. These rules were logical as well as moral. The rest years helped crops grow by letting the nutrients replenish. The system was originally created to govern what happens to the land.

            I believe that the Yovel year should be a reminder for us all. If every fifty years nobody is extremely poor, then maybe we would try to keep everything that way. However, God knows that not everyone will do the right thing and that is why the Yovel needs to be repeated every fifty years. I think that the vision of the Torah is to limit and keep poverty within boundaries. In the ideal world there would be no poverty and everyone would have everything necessary to survive. While it would be amazing to live in a world like that, people need to change a lot in order for it to be possible. The best we can get is a little sneak peek every fifty years. While we do not practice the laws of the Yovel, the government raises money to give food and shelter for poorer people. But it’s still not enough. Even though we will never live in a perfect world, we still learn about these practices so we can get the world to a place as close to there as we can.

            Today, we can still try our best to improve the lives of others. For my Mitzvah project I went to Nicaragua and built a house for a poor family. Through an organization called La Esperanza Granada I funded and helped with the work for this family. I got to know a 12 year old girl and a 10 year old boy who live very different lives from my own. The family’s house was a corrugated iron lean to until my project. While their new house was nowhere near as nice as mine, my actions helped level the playing field. I took some time and money from my own life and gave it to the Nicaraguan family. The organization that helped us build the house also helped the kids go to school. My project was the Yovel on a much smaller scale. If everyone did small deeds like that, slowly the world would become better for everyone. We can all do our part by doing everything to help both poor and needy people. The most that each of us can do is help lots of people as often as possible and also inspire others around us to do the same. These actions are a form of Gemilut Hasadim because they are good deeds that individuals choose to do.

            Individuals contributing is great, but it can never solve the problem. The government mandates forms of giving, such as taxes. This is similar to Tzedakah because in Jewish law everyone is forced to give money and time to help others. Gracious people help, but often the people that have the resources are not the people who want to give. Because of situations like this, more of a difference is made if people are forced to help. The biggest thing our government does for people in poverty is raise taxes. The government takes money from the people and uses some of it to help people who can’t afford food, education, and housing. Similarly to the Yovel, taxes take from people who have more than their allotment and give to people who have less. Like the Yovel, taxes seem like they would solve all poverty problems. However, people who have more money are more reluctant to help, even if they are required by law to do so. Other people believe that giving mandated contributions is enough and because they pay taxes they shouldn’t do anything else. Some leaders in our government want taxes to be lower even though they have the money. Our world will not become a better place until everyone helps as much as they can.

            A lot of people were part of putting together this weekend. I want to thank Rebekah Robinson for teaching me the service and my Haftorah. Thank you to Camp Ramah and my teachers at Perelman and Barrack for teaching me about Judaism and how to be a good person. Thank you to Dorshei Derech for allowing me to leyn for money that went towards my Mitzvah project. Thank you to Rabbi Adam for helping with my Dvar and Rabbi Alanna for teaching BBMM. Thank you to Zekie for leading Ashrei and for being a fun brother when you’re not being annoying. Finally, I want to thank my parents, for figuring out the logistics for the whole weekend, for helping me learn my Torah, for helping with my Dvar, and for preparing me for this day. Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Hear Rabbi Michael Ramberg and about the New Sanctuary Movement

This program will be the 2nd of our Stefan Presser Social Justice Shabbatot.

Rabbi Michael Ramberg will be our darshan at approx 11:30.
Following a Lunchy Kiddush, he will speak about the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.

Stefan Presser Committee:
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein - chair
Donald Joseph, chair emeritas
David Mosenkis
Betsy Teutsch

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Cemeteries and Fragments: A Yizkor Kavvanah by Rabbi Robert Tabak

This kavanah was presented by Bob at Passover Yizkor 2017. It is up at his blog Light Amidst Doubt.
A few days after the news of the vandalism to Mount Carmel cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia, I was there as a rabbi aiding the multi-faith cleanup efforts.  There were Jewish volunteers from many neighborhoods and congregations, Muslims, and Christians.  Of course there had been vandalism.  But part of the story was obscured by the focus on antisemitism.  I worked with volunteers pulling inches of dirt and feet of weeds off of long-fallen and sometimes partially buried tombstones, some broken.  These had not been damaged in the last week.  One of the less-publicized aspects of the clean-up was that some of the volunteer teams had been assigned to try and catalogue the names and locations of every one of the graves. No registry could be found.  Laws about cemeteries in Pennsylvania, which like this one can be privately owned, are notably lax. This was a neglected cemetery, with almost no care or records in recent years, from what I could observe.  Yet each of these stones represented a story, a life, a fragment of a journey of our people.
A few weeks later I was in Barcelona.  Some parts of the old Jewish quarter (Call) can still be seen in the old Gothic Quarter.  My wife Ruth and I took a Jewish walking tour, and the guide pointed out the clearly visible pieces of Hebrew gravestones imbedded in various medieval walls.  After the Jews had been expelled in 1492, their cemetery was destroyed and stones re-used for buildings.  The renewed Jewish community and historians have located the medieval Jewish cemetery and have had it designated an historic site, with a monument.  Again, the Jews scattered, but every stone was a story, each fragment a fragment of a life.
I was reminded of a scene in a recent documentary film about modern Poland.  In one small town, a young Catholic man in his thirties was researching the history of the vanished Jewish community – which did not make him popular.  He found many stones from the Jewish cemetery used as paving stones and in building foundations.  He removed those stones and brought them back to the site of the cemetery. In the film, the young man made a trip to Israel, with photos and maps, to consult with an Orthodox rabbi – a setting he did not usually enter. The Orthodox rabbi probably did not often meet with young Catholics, either.  The question the young man asked was having recovered these tombstones, would it be disrespectful to erect them upright in the cemetery, since no one knew exactly where they had stood in 1939.  He wanted to do the right thing.  The rabbi approved, and said this project would honor the dead. (The film was Shtetl [1996] by Marian Marzynski, and the town was Bransk.)
This reminded me of the midrash about the fragments of the first tablets, broken and no longer legible, also being honored and carried by the Israelites. (BT Bava Batra 14b.)   
Sometimes we have whole stories.  Sometimes we have memories of our parents, children, siblings, grandparents.  But there are also generations who came before them, people whose names we do not know, but whose lives and sacred journeys are part of our Jewish story. Sometimes we have only fragments. We also honor them along with the broken graves and stones.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of the RRA Connection newsletter, publication of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which I edit.  Reprinted by permission.