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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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).

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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.