Author Archives: Aliza Mazor

Aliza Mazor

About Aliza Mazor

Aliza Mazor is an independent organizational consultant specializing in non-profit start-ups and the social change sector. She currently serves as Program Director for Bikkurim.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

There shall be no needy among you–since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion–if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day (Deuteronomy 15:4-5).

The line there shall be no needy among you is both predictive and prescriptive. It indicates that there is plenty for all (if only it is allocated justly) and that there are systems that can ensure just allocation. However, the parashah goes on to emphasize that welfare systems must be coupled with compassion. A good system is not a substitute for a generous heart and open hands.

Alleviating Poverty

Parashat Re’eh outlines two systems by which poverty will be alleviated: remission of debt in the seventh year and the freeing of slaves. Both notions speak to ways in which poverty was perpetuated in biblical times, and to some degree, in modern life. Debt remains, in modern as in ancient times, both a vehicle for economic advancement and a potential trap.

In our society earning a decent living is often predicated on securing things beyond our immediate financial reach–education, transportation, and housing. We are encouraged to borrow to pay for both necessities and luxuries. Sometimes we have no recourse but to borrow in order to avoid homelessness, treat illness, or avoid utter destitution.

However, without the means to repay loans, debt accumulates and the borrower is pursued relentlessly by creditors. In the modern era, many stories of poverty include a long chapter of debt. I am always struck when I read the “Neediest Cases” section of the New York Times by how many of those stories repeat the same refrains–“medical bills were piling up, we borrowed money so we wouldn’t be evicted, we fell behind on payments . . .”

Similarly on the international front, struggling nations with limited resources quickly become indebted to powerful nations that both extract their resources and market products to them aggressively. The end result is that poor countries are hopelessly indebted to rich ones, and unable to free resources for education and infrastructure. Remission of debt has been a powerful tool for breaking the cycle of poverty and enabling those shackled by debt to make a clean start.

A second biblical mechanism for ensuring economic stability is also closely linked to the notion of liberation:

If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. 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 G-d has blessed you (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).

Slavery & Debt

In ancient times slavery was often closely linked to debt. People were sold into slavery to pay off debts. Others “chose” slavery as an alternative to dire poverty because it promised basic subsistence–shelter, food and protection. However, within the nation of Israel debt and slavery were structured as temporary states, not permanent fates. Every seven years, slaves and debtors were entitled to be freed. If one remained a slave for life–preferring the protection of a master and relinquishing individual liberty–it was by choice.

The commandment to provide freed slaves with the means of earning a living–a bit of food, some animals, and some basic household items–was also unique, coupling personal liberation with economic independence. The notion of redeeming slaves and setting them free to a life of possibility mirrors one of G-d’s original promises to Israel–to free us from bondage.

This notion of a reprieve from debt and the right to a life free of poverty has not been carried over into modern times. There is no institutional relief for out-of-control debt on either the individual or national level. The tools that we provide to those who attempting to exit poverty are paltry and often require the beneficiary to be forever ensnared in a complex and disempowering bureaucratic system. We should carefully examine what it would really mean to create freedom in our midst and to end the scourge of modern economic slaveries.

The parashah also warns against the human tendency to look for loopholes in our obligations and to behave selfishly. Together with observing “the rules” we are implored to practice compassion:

Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather you must open your hand and lend him whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your kinsman and give him nothing. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings (Deuteronomy 15:8-10).

Systems constructed to promote fairness and redress inequality are easily circumvented. The only real way to facilitate liberation from poverty is to couple a just system with generous hearts and willing sacrifice on the part of those who enjoy abundance. As Parashat Re’eh reminds us:

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you to open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land (Deuteronomy 15:11).

The Holy Art of Sacrifice

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

Aaron and his sons are ordained as priests and instructed in the elaborate rituals of sacrifice.

But first they must get dressed.

Parashat Tetzaveh devotes great attention to the preparation of Aaron’s garments, down to the most precise details of color, decoration, and accessories. It also provides interesting instruction as to who should prepare them, and in what frame of mind.

The garments of the priest are designed to literally remind him of his task as community representative and emissary. He is going before the Lord, but he is not going alone or in his own name. The names of all his people have been woven into his garments–sewn into the shoulder pads, and written across the breast plate.

Who Clothes the Priests?

It is interesting to note that while the priesthood is hierarchical (and patrilineal), the task of clothing the priests is left to "chochmei halev"–those who are "wise of heart whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom" (Exodus 28:3).

What does it mean to be "wise of heart" and how does this relate to sacrifice, and to the pursuit of justice?

Wisdom is usually associated with the mind–with linear thinking, rationality, and assimilation of complex ideas. What is wise is not simple. Wisdom is not commonplace, otherwise it would not be wisdom. Hearts, however, are the home of passion and compassion; the heart as we understand it is the organ of love and of empathy.

"Wisdom of the heart" is the place where two of our greatest human capacities come together; the capacity to think and problem-solve merges with the urge to nurture, heal, embrace, and love.

Aaron is sent forth to meet God clothed, literally, in the collected wisdom and love of his community. The center of this garment is the "breast plate of decision" (also translated as "the breastplate of judgment"). It is worn over Aaron’s heart and provides a reminder that as priest and leader, he will be called upon not only to serve and worship, but also, in the most critical moments, to decide and judge.

A breast plate is usually thought of as protection for the heart, our most vulnerable organ. Perhaps there is a message here that difficult judgment calls may be wounding (or even heartbreaking)–but for a leader, they are nevertheless required. Decisions may emanate from the heart or be driven by emotion, but ultimately they must also guard the interests of the community. And they must also be wise, embracing the complexities of multiple needs and interests.

How do we balance wisdom and passion as we go forth to do justice in the world? This is one of the hardest questions, and perhaps the most central. Wisdom should guide our actions. They should be calculated and strategic, and we should know the outcome we hope to produce from our efforts. But "wisdom" alone can mire us in bureaucracy–or a calculated approach that loses sight of what we sought to correct in the first place.

Passion & Compassion

Passion and compassion are essential to social change. They are the fuel that drives us to seek and strive for a better world. But passion needs a container; it needs boundaries and channeling. Wisdom can, like the breastplate, be the protector for passion–as long as passion is the garment that we wear beneath it.

Whether we are designated or self-appointed leaders, we do this work as acts of communal responsibility– either because we have been invested with leadership from our community, or because we hope others will follow us and our vision.

As a religious leader, Aaron’s role vis-a-vis the community and God was to offer sacrifices–to literally send smoke signals to God on the community’s behalf. His messages were those of thanks, humility, and affirmation of belief.

Our work for social change should also be infused with these values: gratitude for the relative comfort and affluence that enable us to focus not only on our own survival, but also on the state of the world; humility in the face of not having all the answers but being willing to put our minds and hearts to the task; and affirmation of the belief that there is real potential for change, and in inspiration and support from above in repairing the world.

Before The Law: Creating Real Systems Of Justice


Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

This week’s Torah reading presents us with three stories of justice and injustice. In each, an individual or group is faced with circumstances they believe to be harsh and unjust, and–believing that there is no recourse except to take matters into their own hands–undertakes extra-judicial activity.

The outcome of each case sheds some light on the relativity of justice, the process by which justice is achieved, and the human factors that mediate absolute rules and inflexible systems. Each case also speaks to the failings of both human nature and our modern justice systems.

Jacob’s Favortism & The Brothers Jealousy

In the first story, Joseph’s brothers punish both their father and brother for perpetuating unfairness. Jacob shows favoritism towards Joseph, deploys him to report on his brothers, and gives him a special coat that is unlike anything his brothers own. The tension is exacerbated when Joseph dreams of his own superiority and eagerly shares the vision with his family.

Joseph’s brothers find his presence to be a constant reminder of their inferior status, and their revenge is calculated and cruel. They force Joseph into a pit with no food or water and plot to kill him while they feast, then bloody Joseph’s coat and inform their distraught father that his favorite son has met a cruel death.

Only two out of the eleven brothers show any mercy. Reuben plots to foil their plan, and Judah appeals to his brothers’ self interest and offers a compromise: selling him into slavery. He appeals both to their sense of brotherly duty and their fear of judgment. The plea bargain is successful; Joseph’s life is spared and he is sold into slavery. Interestingly, it is Judah’s pragmatic approach (and not Reuben’s pure motives) which calms the mob and mediates vengeance.

Tamar Takes Action

In the second story, Tamar’s husband is killed and she is left without a means of support and capacity to reproduce, because her father-in-law does not fulfill his promises (and legal obligations). She carries out a deception (including posing as a prostitute and seducing her father-in-law) which, while clearly transgressive, ultimately achieves the goals of bringing her offspring and binding her to the house of Judah.

The system designed to protect Tamar failed her. The ancient practice of promising a younger sibling to the wife of a deceased brother was intended to secure the widow’s socioeconomic status, and when Judah does not fulfill his obligations, Tamar deceives him to restore justice and take her due. She achieves an end that brings positive resolution to her plight and asserts her personal righteousness. Despite her methods, Tamar is rewarded for her resourcefulness with a child, with Judah’s apology, and with the implicit approval of the Torah’s narrative.

Mrs. Potiphar’s Act of Injustice

In the final vignette, Joseph, now in Egypt, is a loyal slave. When the wife of his master, Potiphar, tries to seduce him, he resists her advances. She is infuriated, falsely accuses him of rape, and has him thrown in prison. Mrs. Potiphar, who is wealthy, well-connected, and manipulative, is able to make the system work in her favor and deny Joseph a fair hearing. Though Joseph has done nothing wrong and has been an exemplary servant, he is convicted and punished.

These seemingly unrelated stories are linked by their focus on justice and injustice. In the first vignette, we are presented with the basic injustice of harsh punishment: Joseph and his father have behaved without sensitivity, but their punishment is wildly disproportionate to the offense–and the only thing that mediates the brothers’ harsh judgment is their self-interest. Joseph and Jacob alone did not create this dynamic; it is the unconscious conspiracy of an entire family, demonstrating how easy it is to gravitate towards harsh and punitive responses and ignore the complexity and causes of apparent injustice.

The second vignette reminds us that systemic justice operates beyond the courtroom, in social systems intended to foster fairness and protect the vulnerable, with their own potential for incomplete justice. Judah ignores his obligations and nearly compounds tragedy by punishing the victim. Tamar is rewarded for her resourcefulness and perseverance, but she pays the price of her dignity.

Protecting the Vulnerable

In contemporary welfare systems, too, the vulnerable are often doubly punished by systems tangled in red tape, that so often place too much power in the hands of capricious bureaucrats and fail to protect the dignity of beneficiaries.

In the third vignette, the justice system is inherently unjust in its application. All who come before it are not on equal standing: the one with wealth and power holds undue influence, and the character and prior record of the accused is not considered. A system of true justice would strive to be impervious to corruption, and guard against the subversion of fairness by those with wealth and power.

Justice is complex. Human nature is flawed. Systems are vulnerable to abuse. Parshat Vayeshev urges us to be vigilant–to create systems of justice that take into account root causes, and do not punish victims or allow vengeance to prevail; to see that good systems are enforced and that vulnerable members of society are treated with dignity; and to ensure that power and wealth do not hold undue influence, and that all are equal before the law.