Parashat Re'eh

Liberation And Compassion

Remission of debt and freeing of slaves are two biblical institutions that ensure that cycles of poverty are not perpetuated.

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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).

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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.