Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

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

Commentary on Parashat Re'eh, Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17

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 Torah portion 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 Torah portion 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).

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