As I wrote this article, the House and Senate — after 16 days — finally agreed to raise the debt ceiling, narrowly averting a government shutdown.
Now talks must begin in earnest to figure out a budget acceptable to both parties. Washington’s own Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate budget committee, with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who chairs the House budget committee, must work with other House and Senate members to figure out how to negotiate a compromise.
Said Senator Murray: “Chairman Ryan knows that I’m not going to vote for his budget, I know that he’s not going to vote for mine. We’re going to find the common ground between our two budgets that we can both vote on, and that’s our goal.”
Is it possible to find that common ground? And as Jews, and as a Jewish community, are there principles that can help guide us as we lobby our elected representatives while they try to determine how best to fund our society? While there is no place for any one religion in the legislation itself, there is a place for the wisdom of our tradition to guide and influence the public debate of what kind of society we are trying to create.
At its essence, Judaism envisions the creation of a more just world. It does not deny the realities of poverty, hunger, homelessness; on the contrary, it recognizes those realities and gives us a clear directive for how to respond:
If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which Adonai gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand unto him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wants. Be careful lest there be a hateful thing in your heart, and you say, ‘The seventh year, the sabbatical year, is coming,’ and you look cruelly on your brother, the poor person, and do not give him, for he will call out to God and this will be counted as a sin for you. Rather, you shall surely give him, and you shall not fear giving him, for on account of this God will bless you in all you do and all that you desire. For the poor will never cease from the land. For this reason, God commands you saying, “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and the needy in your land.” (Deut. 15: 7-11).
As Rabbi Jill Jacobs reminds us in her book “There Shall be No Needy,” the text specifically refers to the person who is needy as “your brother;” by doing so, it requires that we see the poor person not as some anonymous other, but as a member of our own family. We bear a responsibility for helping that person, or persons, when he, she or they are in need. The word “ach” (brother) also disabuses us from any pretense that we are somehow inherently different from the poor.
Some 46.5 million people in America today live in poverty. When the federal government shut down, benefits to the neediest among us were cut: For example, had the shutdown extended past October, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, more commonly known as WIC, would have cut off services to the 8.9 million women and children who live at or below the poverty line. Many did experience lower or eliminated benefits. Many low-income seniors did not receive their weekly food deliveries. Two weeks is a long time to go hungry.
As a country, we must do better. Our Jewish tradition teaches that we shouldn’t stop trying.
There is a wonderful story about a rabbi who would vanish every Friday during the month of Elul. The villagers in his town wondered, “Where could the rabbi be?”
They whispered among themselves: “He must be in heaven, asking God to bring peace in the New Year.”
One day, one of the townspeople decided to find out. Late one night he slipped into the rabbi’s home, slid under his bed, and waited. Just before dawn, the rabbi awoke, got out of bed, and began to dress. He put on work pants, high boots, a big hat, a coat, and a wide belt. He put a rope in his pocket, tucked an ax in his belt, and left the house. The villager followed.
The rabbi crept in the shadows to woods at the edge of town. He took the ax, chopped down a small tree, and split it into logs. Then he bundled the wood, tied it with the rope, put it on his back, and began walking.
He stopped beside a small broken-down shack and knocked at the window.
“Who is there?” asked the frightened, sick woman inside.
“I, Vassil the peasant,” answered the rabbi, entering the house. “I have wood to sell.”
“I am a poor widow. Where will I get the money?” she asked.
“I’ll lend it to you,” replied the rabbi.
“How will I pay you back?” asked the woman.
“I will trust you,” said the rabbi.
The rabbi put the wood into the oven, kindled the fire, and left without a word.
After that, whenever anyone in the town would whisper that the rabbi had gone to heaven, the villager would add quietly, “Heaven? If not higher.”
Another teaching in Exodus Rabbah says, “There is an ever-rotating wheel in this world. He who is rich today may not be so tomorrow, and he who is poor today may not be so tomorrow.” I am my brother/sister, and he/she is me.
We should not lobby our elected officials to build a budget that ensures funding for such programs as WIC because we believe our civil laws should reflect Jewish law or values, any more than we would want them to reflect another faith community’s values. Rather, we can and should draw on our tradition to help guide us in our efforts to envision and create a more just society.
We can and should reach higher.