15 August 2015

From Shore to Shore

This morning's NY Daily News carried the alarming news, recently released by Mayor de Blasio's office, that complaints about the homeless to the city are up 59%.  This number reflects data from 311 calls to the city's information line and is comprised mostly of calls made by city residents' own objections to illegal encampments or homeless people in need of assistance.  There are disputes among officials about whether homeless is going up or down in the city and as the article states, the city hopes to take a census later in the summer to determine this more definitively.  And long term there is the structural attempt to create more shelters and more affordable housing, which will require a joint city and state effort--hopefully not too herculean a task, given the oft-times tense bickering that moves up and down the Taconic between Albany and New York City.

Stories like this flesh out in more focus the complications inherent to so many cities and articulated as cogently as usual by the News' Harry Siegel, in a piece he wrote this week called "The Architecture of Segregation," where Siegel decried the painful and shameful reality that the "poor are getting poorer," especially in the smaller cities of America.  This creates a situation, Siegel writes, "which often means bad schools, lousy services, and a lot of crime and policing."  He backs up his argument with data and analysis from the Century Foundation.  It's worth a look.

It's true, isn't it? -- that we don't just live where we live but in fact we live, with some perspective, in an ever expanding circle of connectedness.  Choosing to know the brokenness of others' lives requires a willful opening of the eyes, hand and heart.  Easy as it may be to ignore -- to look the other way, to close our hands and harden our hearts, is an ignorance we exercise at our own peril.

It can make all the difference between living in a society rooted in a sense of blessing or mired in the dissonance of curse.  The world we live in today often seems to suspend us in that place, between the starkness of the good and evil everywhere and especially when, powerless as we may feel in the face of it, we don't know which way the scales will tip.  There is so much work to do.

The blessings and curses of faith are made manifest when extreme fanaticism and the desire to do good collide.  While I'm all too aware of the justified skepticism out there for the certainty of religious truths in an age of rising and violent fundamentalism, I'm also a strong believer in the power of faith and religious narratives to do enormous good.

"If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Eternal your God gives to you, do not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother; rather, you must surely open your hand to him and lend him sufficient need for that which he lacks," warns Moses in Deuteronomy 15: 7-8.  He continues, "For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall surely open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land.'"

It's a curious challenge, isn't it?  A seemingly perfect God creates a land to be inhabited by fallible human beings who, by definition, will always have poor living among them.  Is it as simple an equation to posit that the main reason there are poor among us is because of the choices we make as people?

Stay with this notion:  Poverty is a choice--for those who are poor and for those who live among the poor.  Each of us bears responsibility for changing the situation.  One cannot simply lift oneself up and out with a helping hand; and when can not simply bestow largesse and expect an instantaneous transformation from destitution to success.  It takes two, back and forth, together, in an endless, ongoing commitment to the continual commitment to eradicate injustice from the world.

"The poor shall never cease out of the land."  So don't get tired.  Or rest up when you need to.  We're in this for the long haul.

The Rabbis embrace this notion.  They understand, in most commentaries to this section of Torah, only in a perfect world, with everyone doing good deeds all the time, is the eradication of poverty possible.  We humans, they long concluded, are responsible for our own souls as well as making up for the lack of generosity in others.  I'm reminded of a great story Bryan Stevenson tells in his book Just Mercy about sitting with Rosa Parks and talking to her about all he was going to do bring justice to those mistreated or wrongly accused.  Expecting her praises for his ambition, he was humorously humbled by her pronouncement that this work would make him "tired, tired, tired."  Johnnie Carr, another woman who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, added, "And that's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave."  You can watch Bryan's Ted Talk here.

It's takes an act of moral courage, daily, to open one's hand and heart to the poor.  It requires an exercise in muscular control to open a fist, to allow for warmed blooded flow of compassion to keep our hearts soft and responsive.  It begins within and emanates outward.

Maimonides, who famously conceptualized giving and the creation of justice in society as a ladder of progression, wrote about these verses in his Mishneh Torah, "The poor person who is in your family takes precedence over all others who are in need and the poor person of your house takes precedence over your town and the poor person of your town takes precedence over other towns, as it is said, 'to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land."

It's a brilliant and challenging read on an already challenging text.  Charity--or the establishment of justice--begins at home, some say; but the Rambam would argue it only begins at home--it then moves, in ever expanding circles, outward to the rest of the world.  Like waves in an ocean, deeds of goodness, kindness of open hands and hearts, beating back poverty from shore to shore.

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