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The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
The Torah portion B’har has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and ethical balances to free-market dangers. The Sabbath of the Land, called shemitah, occurs once every seven years; the land lies fallow as an acknowledgment of God as the Creator. Every seven cycles of seven years, there is a "Jubilee" year, called yovel, in which slaves go free, certain debts are canceled, and land returns to its original titleholders.
Further laws are given pertaining to debts and property: one must help people avoid debt-servitude, and one must help people to avoid losing their property. Interest and oppressive financial practices are prohibited. The parsha ends with a general reminder to keep God’s laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.
"If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him–sojourner or resident–and he will live with you." (Leviticus 25:35)
If you see someone falling into poverty or getting into trouble, you must help him, even to the extent of taking him into your home. The commandment starts with the terminology of "your brother," (i.e., a fellow Israelite, or perhaps someone from your tribe or clan) but in the end seems to imply that we must help any person in trouble, Jew or non-Jew.
Terse and idiomatic, it’s not clear from our verse what situation the Torah is addressing: is this a case of indebtedness, as would seem logical from the surrounding verses? If so, is it specifically directed at the creditors, exhorting them to be judicious and merciful with their financial power? Or is it a more general commandment to the Israelites, encompassing any kind of trouble or "falling low" that might happen to a person?
Let’s begin by comparing several translations and seeing how the translation itself is an interpretation:
Jewish Publication Society: "If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side. . . . "
Reading this, one would think that the verse is directed to creditors; they must not treat "kinsmen" as if they were non-Jews by evicting them or seizing their property, because "one who mortgaged his land or sold it to another became, in a real sense, a tenant on his own land." Alternatively, one must not turn a "kinsman" into a "resident alien" by evicting him; one must be compassionate and find a way to keep the poor "by your side" and in the community.
The Orthodox Artscroll translation and commentary sees the commandment to help in more general terms, but agrees with JPS that the point is to help people maintain their status as productive members of the community:
"If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him–proselyte or resident–so that he can live with you." (Emphasis added.)
Everett Fox, in The Schocken Bible, translates the verse in a way that implies that we must extend assistance to "our brother," the sojourner, and the resident-settler equally:
"Now when your brother sinks down (in poverty), and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him (as though) a sojourner and a resident-settler, and he is to live beside you."
This translation seems to turn around the potential ethnocentrism of the verse: just as you would help a sojourner in need, you also need to help the person close to you. It is fascinating to think that the imperative of helping someone within one’s community might be derived from the classic idea of welcoming the stranger, and not vice versa.
The idea that this verse teaches equality in social ethics is made explicit by Aryeh Kaplan, in his Living Bible, an interpretive translation according to traditional Jewish sources:
"When your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you must come to his aid. Help him survive, whether he is a proselyte or a native Israelite. "
On the other hand, the New Revised Standard Version, a reliable and scholarly but not Jewish translation of the Bible, renders our verse with a somewhat different twist:
"And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you."
This is almost the opposite of the JPS translation; the interpretation here is that the consequences of becoming so poor that one needs social assistance is that one becomes like a "stranger and a sojourner," rather than keeping one’s full status in the community.
One might be tempted to argue that a Christian translation could be biased towards seeing the Torah’s laws as harsh and punitive, while the Jewish translations, based as they often are on traditional Torah commentary, are more oriented towards finding the maximum charity and compassion in our verse. However, at least one Jewish translation, the old Soncino Chumash, renders the verse with the same meaning as the NRSV:
"And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee, then thou shalt uphold him; as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee."
The commentators and translators disagree about the extent of our obligation to help those in need: do we give special consideration to the members of our community, or do we help all equally? (Which might spread out our resources quite thinly.) Is there an inevitable social consequence to poverty, or must we find a way to keep the poor and the well-off on exactly the same social level?
These are questions with parallels in contemporary political debates across North America. Yet all the commentators agree that willingness to reach out to a person in need is a basic religious value, and that economic power brings with it the responsibility to act justly.
In fact, the Chafetz Chaim [20th century rabbinic luminary], paraphrasing an earlier midrash, says that in the World to Come, one will be questioned about all the observances that one kept or didn’t keep, but it will be a "great and terrible thing" when they ask if one kept the mitzvah (commandment) of "strengthening one’s brother."
He continues by reminding us that there will come a moment in everyone’s life when a poor person, or a troubled person, or a desperate person, will come to you for help–at that moment, you have a choice, to help or not, to fulfill this basic mitzvah or to turn your back, to "strengthen your brother" (or sister) or to "let his hand falter beside you."
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