Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ki Tetze 5770 - Derekh Eretz and Social Obligation

(Originally delivered on August 21, 2010.)

I am about to give what may be the most unpopular sermon ever. Brace yourselves, and please note that I always welcome comments and criticism, at qiddush or any other time.

We tend to think of Judaism as a “religion,” that is, it speaks only to the holy precincts of our lives, those that deal with our relationship with God. The Torah gives us many mitzvot bein adam lamakom, obligations that matter to God rather than people (kashrut, Shabbat, holidays, prayer, etc.). But the Torah, and everything that flows from it, is a far more comprehensive document. It contains not only our national stories and religious laws, but also a good helping of commandments regarding our behavior vis-à-vis our fellow people. These are known as mitzvot bein adam lehavero, literally obligations between oneself and one’s friends/neighbors, although as we shall see, these mitzvot are also incumbent upon even those who are not our friends or neighbors. The parashah that we read this morning, Ki Tetze, is one solid block of mitzvot, from beginning to end, and many of them fall into this latter category.

For example, (Deut. 22:8, p. 1117 in Etz Hayim): “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet (or railing) for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” Or (Deut. 24:6, p. 1129) “A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone’s life in pawn.” Or (Deut. 23:8, p. 1123) “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (This might say something about why Israel has signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, but I don’t want to speculate any further that.)

Here are a few other relevant laws that we read today:

1. Deut. 24:14-15, p. 1130. Do not abuse a needy employee by delaying his wages.
2. 24:17, p. 1131. Do not subvert the rights of the stranger, the orphan, or the widow.
3. 24:19-22, 1131-2. Agricultural laws about leaving some of your produce for the poor.
4. 22:1-4, 1115-6. You must return your neighbor’s ox or donkey if it goes astray. By the way, this mtizvah is described twice in the Torah. In our parashah it says, “shor ahikha,” literally, your brother’s ox, but in Shemot (Ex. 23:5), it says, “hamor sona-akha,” literally, the donkey of one that hates you. The Torah is suggesting that it does not matter to whom the livestock belongs - we still must return it.

What these laws point to is the fact that in ALL of our relationships - business, pleasure, friendly or unfriendly - we are obligated to take care of each other. The principle of derekh eretz, of treating your fellow travelers along the road of life with respect, is universal. It applies not only to the people that we like or care about, but everybody. Your next-door neighbor, who tosses his leaves into your yard. The cleaning lady. The homeless guy around the corner from your office. Yes, even to the those who hate you, or whom you despise. Everybody.

I am going to pause for a moment to say that I have been warned by multiple rabbis, including my senior colleague, not to address political issues from the pulpit. Some of you might interpret the following as a political statement. But let me assure you (in advance) that my goal is not political. It is, in fact, about religious obligation to one another, mitzvot bein adam lehavero.

I thought of this recently when I read an article by regular New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Krugman is a Nobel-prizewinning economist who often addresses economic and social issues, and yes (to tip my cards), he is of a decidedly liberal bent. But that is irrelevant to the Torah.

Krugman’s column, entitled “America Goes Dark,” was among the top five most-emailed stories for nearly a week.

Krugman’s thesis was as follows: that state and local governments can no longer afford to support some of the essential services that they have historically provided. Public voices of the past 30 years have brought us a sustained anti-tax and anti-government climate in this country, and as a result the hallmarks of American society are being gutted, and the primary victims are infrastructure and schools.

For example, transportation: the Erie Canal and the Interstate Highway System were state-of-the-art when originally built. Today, local governments cannot afford to maintain roads, and so, says Krugman, they are breaking them down and replacing with gravel.

Utilities: he mentions that the city of Colorado Springs is saving money by turning off one-third of its streetlights.

Schools: Krugman does not say this, but estimates are that as a result of budget crises in nearly every state in the Union this year, an estimated 300,000 public-school teachers will be laid off.

I remember reading elsewhere in the Times not too long ago about the state of Arizona’s drastic budget cuts: they have shut down rest-stop facilities along highways and closed more than a third of state parks, and it is the first state to eliminate the Children’s Health Insurance Program, leaving 47,000 poor children without health insurance.

Let me add to this discussion the dramatic bridge collapse that happened in Minneapolis three years ago. It was, in fact, the very day that I started work at Temple Israel, a day on which I took two subway trains, one LIRR train, and a bus to get to work (because I was still living in Manhattan at the time), and all of these crossed bridges to get me here.

A quick check of the NYSDOT website reveals that 37% of bridges in New York State are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. Is that a number any of us in this room are comfortable with?

Ladies and gentlemen, many of us have visited poor countries on vacation. In India, where Judy and I took our honeymoon, it is not too surprising that there are no highway rest stops with nice facilities.

But this is America, the land that our ancestors (and some of us) came to because of the opportunities that it provided. This is a wealthy nation, in Yiddish Di Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, that has always prided itself on being the most advanced in the world.

Well, says the economist Krugman, we can return to that. Or we can continue to rail against paying taxes, and watch our nation crumble, putting ourselves, our neighbors, our friends and our enemies at risk of not only spiritual, but also clear physical danger.

The Talmud follows up on the Torah’s commandment to build a rail on your roof to prevent people from falling. In Masekhet Ketubot, we learn that one who keeps a dangerous dog or an unstable ladder in one’s home is guilty of the same crime as the guy who builds a roof with no rail. Later commentators tell us that this means that we are responsible for all possible types of preventable damage or death.

If we read “one’s home” broadly as “one’s community,” a fair extrapolation, I think, then we are all collectively responsible for eliminating lurking dangers. And really, my friends, the only way that we can accomplish this is through government, and the only way that government can build more railings and repair unstable ladders is through our paying into the collective kitty.

I remember hearing not too long ago a report on NPR about taxes, in which they pointed out that Europeans pay far more in taxes than Americans do. They interviewed people on the street in (I think) Denmark, who all said, yes, we pay high taxes. But we all benefit from what the government does for us. One young woman even said eagerly that she wanted to pay more taxes, something that you would never hear anybody in America say.

But let’s face it - with taxation levels being what they are, we are not able to pay the bills to keep the Goldene Medina that attracted our immigrant forbears, functioning. Our state was among those that faced a protracted budget crisis this year; California, that most golden of golden states, is on the brink of financial collapse.

To extend Krugman’s line of thinking, we are crossing the line from saving money to creating actual danger. Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot make the case that highway rest stops or state parks save lives. But streetlights and teachers certainly do.

Bringing this back around to where I started, we are responsible for each other due to the laws outlined today in Ki Tetze, and the overarching principle of derekh eretz. From my perspective, it is truly shameful that the wealthiest country in the world is turning off lights and closing state parks, let alone laying off teachers.

Now, once again, you might read this is an unapologetically political statement, especially if you disagree with me. But please note that I said nothing about the subprime mortgage crisis, economic stimulus packages, bailing out Wall Street, corporate taxes, the war in Afghanistan, and so forth, and I did not mention any specific politician or party. But I am saying that government is the only tool with which we can fulfill some of the mitzvot bein adam lehavero, and that is ultimately its purpose.

Hevre, the Torah mandates that we take care of each other. And we as Jews are supposed to be Or Lagoyim - a light unto the nations. As such, we should be leading our own nation back into light. Government, my friends, costs money. But it does supply essential services that we cannot otherwise provide. And we need to pay for them. This is a matter of derekh eretz, and a compulsory understanding of the laws of the Torah. Shabbat shalom.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. Needed to be said. The shortsightedness of our society has been criticized by a Nobel Prize winner from Bellmore, who now teaches at the world's best university. Would that people would listen! Soon we will be eclipsed by China and then what? How about the social contract?