Moses isn’t talking only to the people who were physically present in his audience, at the end of the Wilderness wanderings. He is talking to you and me.
This is not simply a “sermonic topic sentence”. It is the explicit message of the Book of Deuteronomy: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here this day before the LORD our God and those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut. 29:14)
It is always generally true that we read the Bible with an eye to what it is saying to us today. But we are especially entitled to read the Book of Deuteronomy, wearing those lenses, because it is deliberately addressing future generations.
In one place, Moses goes even further, and predicts that one specific commandment will always be urgently necessary. Can you imagine what law that might be?
“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) The commandment that will never become a thing of the past is charity: the mandate to open your heart, your hand and your wallet to help the needy among your countrymen.
How true for our country, today! Our country’s economy has contracted painfully over the past five months, leaving historically high numbers of Americans out of work. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Congress responded to that need, but benefits for millions of unemployed Americans ran out last week. Unlike the spirit of compromise, spanning both sides of the political aisle, that yielded the initial congressional action, this time, the “business as usual” dysfunctionality of our highest representative assembly has returned. While politicians blame each other, people go hungry. Elected leaders fiddle; Americans’ security burns.
There are both conservative and progressive strains within the Bible, and in some instances, it is possible to read the Bible in support of various approaches to the questions of the day. But here, the Bible is unequivocal. Those who have are duty bound to help those who have not, at first with loans, but if that fails, with outright gifts.
Consider both the law and the uncompromising rhetoric of the passage in Deuteronomy dealing with the Sabbatical year. An idealistic provision—anticipating, yet going beyond, the loan repayment forgiveness feature in the bail-out legislation passed by our Congress this year— the Bible orders the remission of debts owed by the poor to the rich every seven years: “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or his kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the LORD.” (15:1-2) This understandably could be a disincentive against lending to the poor with the approach of the seventh year. Moses knows that and tackles the psychological issue head-on: “Beware lest you harbor a base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will incur guilt.” (15:9)
Other books of the Bible also enjoin charity. Exodus and Leviticus contain noble provisions for alleviating the worst suffering of poverty. Even so, Deuteronomy goes beyond the other books in its consistent humanitarianism. One case in point: Exodus attacks the prevalent institution of slavery, and commutes slavery into indentured servitude. Exodus limits the term of service to six years, after which, the indentured servant goes free, his debt cancelled by his service. (Exodus 21:2). But for Deuteronomy, that is not enough. Upon completion of the indenture, the master is commanded to furnish his former servant with enough start-up assets to break the cycle of poverty: “When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed. Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the LORD your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore, I enjoin this commandment upon you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:13-15)
This last phrase gets to the heart of how we are to understand the meaning of our Jewish national existence. Deuteronomy claims that our birth as a nation was not simply an instance of our liberation. To be Jewish is not simply to be as bad or as good as the next nation. God didn’t liberate us so that we could perpetuate the racism and other sins of the nations of the world. Our very reason for being is to create a more just society. Systemic oppression of the poor undermines our claim on God’s favor.
That’s a high bar. Jews have met it some of the time. America has met it some of the time. America failed to meet that bar last week and is not manifesting the urgency that the Bible tells us God expects of us.
Now would be a good time to repent, and to demonstrate that repentance by opening our hand to the needy among us.
Rabbi Michael Panitz