The word “economics” often evokes stock markets, exchange rates, global trade, and unemployment. But whether we are talking about buying groceries or the national debt, our material welfare and well-being have been of paramount concern since the beginning of human existence.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the Torah addresses economic activity in narrative and law. We see Abraham’s wealth lauded in Genesis, we retell the story of our people’s freedom from slavery every year, and we find laws relating to property ownership, theft, tax collecting, righteous giving, ethical business practices, paying workers, etc.
As a student of economics, I have long been interested in how Jewish values align (or differ) with the contemporary economic theory. For instance, the Torah does not focus on scarcity, but on the ultimate goal of sustaining life. We are enjoined numerous times to take care of every member of our society, particularly our most vulnerable. We are warned not to oppress the stranger, not to mistreat the widow or the orphan, and to act with compassion toward those who need to borrow money (Exodus 22:20-26). We are reminded that being holy requires us to leave the corners of our fields “for the poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 19:10) and not to mistreat workers or to defraud neighbors (Leviticus 19:13).
In short, though scarcity may exist, we must act from a mindset of abundance.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat R’eih, illustrates a key difference between the economics of Torah and capitalism as they relate to debt respectively. Deuteronomy 15 legislates a periodic remission of debts:
Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: all creditors shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow… There shall be no needy among you—since the Eternal your God will bless you in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.
This lofty aspiration that there “be no needy” continues with a splash of reality from Torah, as the text goes on to warn those who would refrain from lending:
If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean and give nothing to your needy kin – who will cry out to the Eternal against you, and you will incur guilt. Give readily and have no regrets… For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land. [Deut. 15:7-11]
Rabbi Jill Jacobs has discussed the disconnect between “there shall be no needy” (Deut. 15:4) and “there will never cease to be needy ones” (Deut. 15:11), calling it the “paradox of poverty.” Citing the medieval commentator Nachmanides, she suggests that the Torah here is “optimistic but realistic” (There Shall Be No Needy, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 14-16). But in addition to taking a pragmatic attitude toward poverty, this passage suggests that the Torah has a different understanding of what money is and should be.
Your Economics 101 textbook will teach you that money is a means of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. But the Jewish practice of periodic debt forgiveness, rather than amassing money over time, resets the economic table and levels the field between the haves and have-nots. It ensures that those who need to borrow money to survive in one season do not find themselves haunted by that debt ever after. Further, the obligation to leave the corners of one’s fields and orchards for the poor to glean demands we create a society and economy where no one lacks access to food, even if some people may, at times, have to go into debt.
A holy society ensures an economy in which everyone has the ability to sustain their lives from the land that sustains all life. Torah imagines a society where “there shall be no needy” because the people heed God’s commandments and remember that all material wealth is created in partnership with the Divine. A holy society acts to limit money’s power to store value over time and to ensure a basic level of subsistence and equity for all.
COVID-19 has dramatically reshaped our everyday lives. Many of us have not seen family or friends in person since early March. We may have been furloughed, let go from our jobs, or continue to work remotely, uncertain as to when it will safe for us to return to our offices, or in my case, the university campus on which I teach.
If Ramban was correct in reading the first 11 verses of Deuteronomy 15, which views giving to the needy as if poverty could be eradicated, as an “‘optimistic but realistic’” approach (Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy), it is possible to read Deut. 15:1-11, as Rabbi Chaiken writes, as the Torah’s imagining “a society and an economy where no one lacks access to food” and where consequently “there shall be no needy” (Deut. 15:4).
Drawing on the book of Deuteronomy, we in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, should be able to imagine our society as one in which, even in the midst of a pandemic, no one goes hungry. But sadly, like the Deuteronomist, we know that “there will never cease to be needy ones” (Deut. 15:11) in our country.
As the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis notes in a recent article in The Nation:
“Today, more than 38 million people [in the US] officially live below the federal poverty line and, in truth, that figure should have shocked the nation into action before the coronavirus even arrived here.”
If one factors in such expenses as child care, health care, transportation and housing, none of which, Theoharis maintains, are taken into account by the official figure, “There are at least 140 million people [in the US today] who are poor – or just a $400 emergency from that state.”
Perhaps in the wake of the current pandemic, Deuteronomy 15:5, a verse that Rabbi Chaiken does not include in his commentary, is particularly instructive. None among you shall be needy, says God, “if only you heed the Eternal your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.”
As part of a larger blueprint for living as a holy nation, Deuteronomy 15:5 makes it clear that only by obeying God’s commandments can the Israelites, and by extension we, create an economically just society. It is our obligation to “feed the hungry and clothe the naked,” even in the midst of a pandemic.
Those of us who are not among the particularly vulnerable population should go food shopping or deliver meals to fellow congregants, relatives, or neighbors in need of such help; those of us who can might buy take-out from small local restaurants struggling to remain open without firing some of its employees; while all of us should contribute money, however small or large the donation, to organizations like Feeding America, a national network U.S. food banks, that provides food to those in need.
Such measures may not eradicate hunger. But as the rabbinic sages maintained, when you are asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and you answer: “I used to feed the hungry,” you will be told: “This is God’s gate; you, who fed the hungry, may enter.” (Midrash to Psalm 118:17).
Perhaps, as the Torah suggests, there will always be those who are hungry – yet the Torah’s realism should not be mistaken for fatalism. As rabbi and theologian Leo Baeck maintained in The Essence of Judaism:
“Every suffering of our neighbor must become our own concern, a test and proof of our ethical freedom…When we face poverty, we meet not the language of fate but the demand of a definite duty imposed on us. In the most special sense of the commandment is the poor man our fellow man…Through him humanity appeals to us, bare and naked, humanity, one might say, asking for human fellowship.”