Friday, May 24, 2019 /19 Iyar, 5779
Parashat B’har Leviticus 25:1-26:2
Financial stress is very, very troubling.
Three times in our Torah portion for this week, Parashat B’har, we read this compelling and frightening phrase, “If one of your kin is in straits, and…” In each instance, the Torah indicates that the distressed individual, facing financial suffering, must either sell part of his land holding, must surrender himself to another’s authority, or must bind himself over as a bound laborer.
How tragic! Yet, it is not so terribly uncommon. Just this week we learned that nearly 50% of college students are either food-insecure or are at risk of being homeless during their college tenures. And, that occurs while these students are under the umbrellas of the college or university! Moreover, we are learning how income inequality in America has become more extreme and polarizing than ever before, leaving so many at risk of financial calamity. A simple, anecdotal look about our region reveals so many who are homeless, jobless, hungry and hurting.
Yes, Torah offers its solutions – mechanisms to alleviate the immediate pressures, and hopefully, to help distressed individuals to recover from their state. However, these are individual cases, while the news from around our nation is describing a national, communal condition. Our national situation does not offer itself to an easy mechanism or solution. Rather, a systemic malaise has overtaken our wider economy and our economic ecology.
Yet, I would submit that the Torah must be cringing at this situation. If the tragic financial distress of a single individual should command half a chapter of Torah, how much more the condition of an entire nation must be terrifyingly troubling to our Tradition.
And, unfortunately, Torah does not offer a simple mechanism for transforming a national financial calamity. It does offer the concept of the Jubilee Year, when debts were forgiven, thus relieving the temporary distress of individuals across the nation. And, historical analysis does prove that relieving debts did alleviate this distress, yet this model worked in a limited, agricultural climate. It doesn’t translate to a complex economy like that of today.
So, we share a communal distress. “If one of your kin is in straits, and…”
Our challenge is responding to the “and…”
Rabbi Doug Kohn