11 August 2011


Gov Scott Walker (with the microphone)  Photo by Rick Wood of Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker showed up at the State Fair yesterday to help with the crossbreed livestock bidding, always a good time, and offered a hand of reconciliation and bipartisan spirit to a fairly toxic political atmosphere not just in the Midwest but in much of the country.  It wasn't really a spirt of bipartisanship that cut $467 million dollars from health care for the poor.  It remains to be seen how that will play out.  People are really concerned, dissatisfied, and deeply anxious about the direction of the nation.  Volatile markets and an uncertain job outlook has millions worried.  A simple sidewalk conversation in our neighborhood in Brooklyn is no different.  We're looking for leadership, courage, and compassion for the poor--it shouldn't be that tall an order to fill.

In my own daily study, I'm taking another look at the Mishnah, an early collection of rabbinic law, and in particular I'm interested in early forms of ethical and moral mandate to care for the poor.  In the first several tractates--Brachot, Peah, and Demai--we find that care for the poor and our obligations to others economic well-being are expressed through the tithing of food and agriculture--a Biblical commandment that was honed and refined by the Sages, living nearly 1500 years after Moses received Torah from God on Mount Sinai.

One question that is often on my mind as I look at these ancient texts--especially today, when the latest Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry likens the payment of taxes to a system of slavery under Pharaoh--is whether the Sages would have found this adamant opposition to taxes as onerous as certain religio-political leaders like Governor Perry do.  Their worlds are so different and nearly impossible to compare but nevertheless, it's a useful exercise.

Peah, for instance, is very certain about making sure that Jewish society has an accounting of the poor among them when making their determinations about allocations of obligation.  Do a proper counting; no skimming off the top of your own harvest; and make sure that the conditions in which you leave food for the poor to gather are not dangerous conditions that would put them at any risk of hurt or pain.  Both their physical and emotional well-being are taken into strict consideration.  The humiliation of being on assistance is deep and the Sages seem to have been quite sensitive to that.

In contrast is what appears to be a very callous approach to the needy that we are seeing expressed today.  The value we begin from in American political discourse is not the language of obligation to others--especially those less fortunate--but to an obligation to a more neutral financial bottom line.  "Balanced budgets" or "individual rights" expressed through "no increase in taxes" as the prevailing winds of our discourse, while those least fortunate among us are left to drift and beg, like chaff beaten from the harvested wheat of our own good fortune.

Mishnah Demai offers a heartening definition about one who is נאמן or trustworthy/reliable.  Of course, from spiritual perspective, the Hebrew word נאמן has as its root a word quite familiar to English speakers--אמן--Amen.  Witness:  "He who undertakes to be trustworthy/reliable is one who is assumed to have tithed all his produce."  Seem mundane?  Imagine if it were to read, "Who is a Trustworthy Citizen?  One who proudly pays his taxes because he knows that in doing so, he is contributing to the uplift of the poor and least fortunate among us."

נאמן.  אמן.


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