|Behar - How do we deal with the poor?|
by Rabbi Jonathan Kaplan
Parashat Behar builds on the theme of care for poor through exploring how the community should provide for those who have lost property through economic hardship (Leviticus 25:25ff). Following the discussion of the Jubilee legislation and God's declaration that "the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is mine," the parasha details how this radical economic vision should be applied in the community.
If your kinsmen is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold. If a man has no one to redeem for him, but prospers and acquires enough to redeem with, he shall compute the years since its sale, refund the difference to the man to whom he sold it, and return to his holding. If he lacks sufficient means to recover it, what he sold shall remain with the purchaser until the jubilee; in the jubilee year it shall be released, and he shall return to his holding. Leviticus 25:25-28
The radicalism of this vision is that it respects both the investment of the individual who buys the property and the conviction that everyone should have a stake in society. Leviticus Rabba 34:1expands on the vision of this passage not by discussing this radical social vision, but instead by focusing on the meaning of the opening phrase ki-yamukh achikha "If your kinsmen is in straits." The Midrash offers us a number of potential meanings for this phrase to expand upon our obligation to care for the poor (cf. Exodus 23:6, Deuteronomy 15:7, Luke 12:33).
The editor of this section of Leviticus Rabba begins by stating our verse and then the verse with which he will bring our verse into conversation, "Happy is the one who is thoughtful with the poor; the LORD will keep him from harm in bad times" (Psalm 41:1). For the darshan [teacher of midrash], it is not merely enough to buy your kinsman's property when he is in financial straits. The obligation to care for the poor extends to a number of other areas of life.
The darshan begins by highlighting the interpretation of Abba ben Jeremiah that being thoughtful with the poor entails enthroning "the Good Inclination over the Evil Inclination." In rabbinic literature, the Good Inclination is often personified as a poor person. In this case, Abba ben Jeremiah's interpretation is expansive. Care for the poor means living a life in which we work to have our Good Inclination prevail over our Evil Inclination and thus pursue a just society.
The darshan next mentions the contention of Isi that this "refers to one who gave a perutah to a poor man." A perutah is a small coin, but, though small, it is enough to help buy food to sustain the person (see Psalm 41:3).
Another way in which the darshan tells us we are called to care for the poor is through the interpretation of R. Jochanan that this verse "refers to one who buries a met mitzva." Met mitzva (lit. commandment of the dead) refers to the obligation of all Jews, including priests, to ensure the burial of a person who has no relatives or friends to look after his burial (cf. Psalm 41:3). This interpretation may seem odd at first, but if we consider the broader vision of the Torah and Yeshua, we are called to pursue a society in which people are cared for and respected in both life and in death.
The final way in which the darshan enjoins us to care for the poor is through the visitation of the sick. The poor in this case are not those who have lost property but those whose lives are threatened and whose spirits are often made poor by the weight of illness and pain. Visiting and caring for the sick (bikkur cholim) has the power to encourage and strengthen those who are suffering and even save their lives. This is illustrated in a parable Yeshua tells in response to the question of a learned scholar about the limits of neighborliness.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have." Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Luke 10:30-35
As we can see from the four interpretations of the Midrash and the parable of Yeshua, caring for the poor fundamentally entails nurturing a just society in which we "love our neighbor as" ourselves (Leviticus 19:6).
Rabbi Jonathan Kaplan
This d'rash appeared originally in The Set Table, an initiative of the Yachad network, and is used by permission. To subscribe to The Set Table, send a blank email to THESETTABLE-SUBSCRIBE@