In this week's portion, R'eih, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites, explaining to them what will happen as they cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.
Moses tells them what they can expect in the new land. They will live in the land, enjoy prosperity, and have victory over their enemies. They are told that God is going to take care of them. They should look forward to amassing much and having the freedom that such prosperity brings. Moses acknowledges the power that comes with that wealth: "You will extend loans to many nations, but you will require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but none will dominate you." (Deuteronomy 15:6) The Israelites are going to be powerful in every way. And with great power, (you know what comes next) comes great responsibility.
Many of us know this as the Peter Parker principle thanks to Stan Lee. However, the idea has its roots much further back in history. Different versions of this idea can be found in lots of different places. Some date it back to the French Revolution where, in a 1793 manuscript of the decrees made by the French National Convention, we find, "They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power."
This principle comes from the realization that when you have wealth, property, prosperity, influence, and dominion over others, you are then imbued with the responsibility for what happens to them. How do we use that power? For our own gain, or for the welfare of the whole?
Much earlier than the 18th century, Torah taught this same lesson, though less succinctly. The Torah's description of responsibility comes in two parts. One kind of responsibility is ritual requirements. In this portion, the laws of kashrut are repeated, the instructions for celebrating certain holidays are given, and we are told that rituals associated with other peoples are forbidden to the Israelites. These kinds of commands, ritual commands, are geared toward honing the Israelites' discipline. They must learn not to be tempted by the things that are not meant for them, learning to control their desires, and thus being thoughtful and purposeful about their actions, which will make them thoughtful and purposeful in their interactions with other people. This is important because the other part of their responsibility concerns obligations to other people.
R'eih explains that the Israelites' wealth will be such that "There shall be no needy among you." (Deuteronomy 15:4) Ideally, there will be so much that no one will want for their basic needs. Yet, just a few verses later, it also recognizes that realistically, "there will always be needy ones in your land," and explains, "which is why [God] commands you; open your hand to the poor and needy in your land...If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against [them]...Give readily and have no regrets when you do so." (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)
Specifically, we are to remember certain people within our communities. Every third year, the tithe, which is usually brought to the temple as an offering and provides for feasting and celebration, will be given to the Levites, who were not given a hereditary share of the land, and the widows, the orphans and the strangers, the disenfranchised in our settlements. Therefore, the tithe that is usually devoted to God is devoted instead to the people in our midst who are in need. Torah teaches us that with power and wealth comes responsibility and obligation.
But, even as so many have thought it and taught it, it is a hard lesson to fully realize. We tend to focus on what we receive first and foremost and neglect the part about obligation. Yet in every society, in every time, there have always been people in need. There have always been those who lack a hereditary portion, and there have always been those who are disenfranchised, because the system, every system since the time of the Torah, has left someone out of the power structure (or has been purposefully designed one to oppress some people, for other people's gain). But the wellbeing of all people is linked to our success. What is due to them is as dear as what is due to God, the entity to whom we owe thanks for every blessing, for every achievement, and for every aspect of our wellbeing. Fulfilling our obligations to othersdetermines whether or not we will be successful in life.
Unfortunately, the ancient Israelites never really understood this lesson, not while they had power over their land. That's what we hear the prophets say over and over, that they postured and pretended to live up to their responsibilities but neglected the people in their midst. Our texts often credit their lack of care and compassion and their failure to fulfil their obligations, for their ultimate demise as an autonomous political entity. Their way of life couldn't be sustained without responsibility to temper their power, without the Israelites giving to balance what they received.
And so, we ask ourselves, what will be our destiny if we do not learn those same lessons?