Parashat Balak

Seeing Their Faces But Not Their Doors

The Israelites' dwellings in the wilderness provide us with a model for ensuring the existence and dignity of adequate housing for all members of society.

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Yet, instead of attempting to provide decent housing for the poor, the little money that is spent is directed toward creating homeless shelters, which are, in addition to physically dangerous places at times, extremely demoralizing to individuals, and often inhumane to families trying to stay together.

Why is this? It seems that we need to punish people for being poor. The ideology behind such laws understands poverty as the obvious result of slothfulness and greed. It insists that no one could be poor by accident, that those who are poor are of color, are "welfare queens" or perhaps are one of the "crazy" people who got dumped during the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals.

Even this last notion is somewhat of a concession for one who holds this ideology, who often believes that these are people who probably prefer to live on the street anyway, and besides, what we really need to do, for their own good, is to lock them up, where we can't see them.

Even when people are provided with homes to live in that are not shelters, modern welfare housing is a disgrace. Private companies fail to do repairs on their properties to create a space that is even minimally livable: plumbing ceases to work, vermin move in, walls and doors sometimes have gaping holes. It is small surprise that the people who live in these places despair of a better life.

Rashi's comment strikes so deeply to the heart of what it means to have "a good place to live." The people Israel were moving forward toward their own land, and though not yet there, they made, as a community, homes that created an atmosphere of respect for one another.

Just as in every other community, there were undoubtedly those who were richer, and those who were poorer; yet every family in Israel had a space in which to live, a place that was respectable, and respected. From these homes, they were able to envision a brighter future, one in their own land, which they could work to build with their own hands, and to improve both it and themselves. The decency of their homes was the base from which they built our future.

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Rabbi Alana Suskin

Alana Suskin received her Rabbinic Ordination and Master of Rabbinic Studies from the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.