The fast not chosen

The fast not chosen

It is budget time again, when federal, state, and municipal executives and legislators set out their fiscal priorities for another year. With budget time comes the traditional cry of the slash-and-smash set, to wit: Down with the downtrodden, let them hang by their bootstraps. Up with the upper class, may they donate to our campaigns.

Am I being cynical? Perhaps I am. Perhaps I overstate the case, but only by a bit. Of course, there are no politicians out there who would say such things in public, even if they actually think in so callous a manner. It is, however, how they approach budgets under their control, and that is all that matters.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day What does not matter nowadays, it seems, is what political party one belongs to. Taking from the poor and giving to the rich is the order of the day on both sides of the aisle, as President Obama’s proposed budget makes clear. The president is proposing deep cuts in a variety of programs that help the underprivileged classes. For example, spending for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps heat the homes of senior citizens and poor families, will be sliced in half. The same is true for programs meant to help the poor obtain job-training and find affordable housing. Child care and education – especially higher education – also are in for deep cuts.

About the only thing that separates the two parties is that the Republicans do not agree that the proposed cuts go deep enough or cut enough social programs to suit them, as was heard in a number of congressional hearing rooms this week.

Jewish law does not allow a community (or an individual) to commit fiscal suicide, but it does have a different set of priorities when it comes to communal and national budgets.

“Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,” the Torah decrees in Leviticus 19:16-18. “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt on his account…, [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

In halacha, in Jewish law, “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” means we must look out for the welfare of everyone in our community. Because the word “idly” is part of the commandment, we must be proactive in doing so, not merely passive or reactive.

“Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt on his account” means that when you see that something is wrong next door, or down the street, or even across town, you must speak up. You must get involved. You cannot sit back and say it is someone else’s problem. It is not someone else’s problem; it is your problem, for you may “not stand idly by.”

“[And] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” means that what you would do out of love for your own family, you must do out of love for your neighbor’s family. Why must you do these things? “I am the Lord.”

Elsewhere, the Torah tells us (Leviticus 26:37), “And they shall fall one upon another.” Says the Talmud: “[When Scripture states,] ‘And they shall fall one upon another…,’ this teaches us that all Israel are responsible one for another [kol Yisrael aray-veem zeh la’zeh]!” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shevuot 39a; also see BT Sanhedrin 27b.)

Everyone in the community is responsible for the morality, the ethics, and the actions of the individuals within that community.

Elsewhere (BT Shabbat 54b), the Talmud teaches us: “Whoever can turn aside his household [from doing wrong] but does not, is seized for [the crimes of] his household; [if he can prevent] his fellow citizens [from doing wrong, but does not], he is seized for [the crimes of] his fellow citizens; if [he can prevent] the whole world [from doing wrong, but does not], he is seized for [the crimes of] the whole world.”

Why would someone be punished for the wrongdoing of others? Why is a community punished for the sins of individuals? If the Torah insists that everyone be punished for his or her own sins, why is there this contradiction?

Actually there is no contradiction. In each instance, the people in the community or the neighbors are not being punished for what someone else did, but for what they themselves did not do. They did not exercise a proper, righteous, positive influence over the individual. They ignored the warning signs; they stuck their heads in the sand; they said “this is not our concern.”

It is their concern because “kol Yisrael aray-veem zeh la’zeh.” All Jews are responsible one for the other.

Collective responsibility extends to the education of our children and especially to the welfare of the teachers to whom we entrust that task. Yet teachers are prime targets of the budget ax. Judaism sees them in another light.

A midrash, for example, tells us of two rabbis who were sent on a fact-finding mission to various communities to see how they were dealing with education matters.

“They came to a city and said to the people, ‘Bring us the guardians of the city.’ [The people] fetched the captain of the guard and the magistrate. The rabbis exclaimed, ‘These [are not] the guardians of the city!'”

The guardians of a town, the rabbis said, are its teachers. (See Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations, Second Prologue.)

Along with cutting programs that help those who have not, the slash-and-smash set is also out to cut taxes, in order to provide help for those who have (and especially those who are willing to share some of what they have with a politician’s election campaign fund).

Cutting taxes with abandon, however, is halachically dicey, given the Torah’s emphasis on our obligations to the poor, as some rabbinic decisions have made clear over time.

The Jewish attitude toward governmental budgets may be summed up in words spoken by Isaiah (see chapter 58) and often quoted here:

“Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen – to loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring the poor, who are cast out, to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your … righteousness go before you…; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon day; and the Lord shall guide you continually….”

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