Among the many prejudices I acknowledge is a general bias against people who are wealthy. It’s a bias that I, raised in the public housing projects of New York City and coming from a family with lots of Wobblies and members of the Socialist Workers Party, will admit to readily. It’s a bias generally exasperated through experience in the Jewish community, primarily the community outside of large metro areas like NYC, Chicago, etc. though it can be just as exasperated in those places as well.
I’ve written about this before. There is a segment of the Jewish community which I’ll call, for lack of a better name, working class, which one seems to find primarily in the large metro areas. Yes, those areas have more than their share of Jews who are doctors, lawyers, CEOs, etc. However, it has been my experience that outside these metro area, one doesn’t find many “working class” Jews. If you’re one of my many friends from the several smaller Jewish communities where I have lived, don’t take offense yet – read on.
At least in the liberal Jewish world, being an active member of the Jewish community is expensive. Large percentages of the Jewish community do seem to have more than adequate resources to deal with this (although, as is typical in the US these days, the large middle and upper middle classes are feeling the squeeze.)
Striking off in a somewhat different direction earlier this week the radio program On Point apparently had a show discussing the difficulties of the extremely wealthy. I wasn’t able to listen to the show, but I saw the subject in a Tweet to which I hastily responded how I didn’t have much sympathy for them. My brother-in-law happily chimed-in echoing my sentiments.
All these thoughts and more were on my mind as I perused the special haftarah for Shabbat HaHodesh. At the very end the prophet tells us these things:
- When a ruler makes a gift to his sons, it becomes their inheritance
- When a ruler makes a gift to one of his subjects, it only belongs to that subject until the next Sabbatical year
- A ruler may not take property away or rob property from his subjects in order to endow his sons, but may only endow them from his own property.
That last part I like, the rest of it, not so much. I have really struggled with this. It seems an unfair sort of fairness. If a King chooses to bestow his largesse on me, why do I only get its benefit until the next Sh’mita year?
I began to wonder what the lesson is here. Surely rulers have as much right as any parent to pass on their holdings to their offspring? Nevertheless it still grates on me how, even today, we allow the very wealthy and powerful to pass on their holdings to children who did little to earn them. Some children are lucky to be born into wealth. Others are born into poverty (yet, surprisingly, might consider that just as lucky!)
When I step back and examine these texts, I begin to get a glimmer of intent. As with so many things in Judaism, it is about balance. As I am constantly reminding others, I must remind myself: “Equal” and “Fair” are not always the same.
There is a clear enjoinder here for the ruler (or the wealthy, if you prefer) that their property shall only be obtained fairly and justly. They cannot abuse those beneath them in order to accumulate more property. You cannot examine the rest of the text here without keeping this in mind, though it might have been easier to understand if this enjoinder had been placed in the text before the other statements.
The Torah teaches that we must not pervert justice to favor either the poor or the rich. Not only must we do this in action and deed, but thought as well. My knee-jerk bias against those with wealth is not an appropriate way to think.
I still think it stinks that the sons of rulers get to keep their gifts whereas the rest of us peons have to give them back at the next Sabbatical year. To some degree, I accuse this text of attempting to pervert justice in favor of the rich. I’m adding this text to my list of irredeemable texts that I’ll try to find a way to redeem.
For the moment it will have to suffice that reading this text has caused me to be observant of my own biases, and to reconsider them. Yes, when you’re living hand-to-mouth, it is hard to be sympathetic to the cries of the nanny-hiring set complaining about the high cost of a day school education. There’s been a recent kerfuffle caused by some day schools suggesting to families that they can’t really offer them financial support unless they’re willing to make more sacrifices like giving up expensive vacations, etc. Part of me understands the point of view of the schools, though I still think it’s a tacky thing for them to do. It is important, however, that I work so that part of me also understands the point of view of the families. As I mentioned earlier, the middle class is getting squeezed. Life requires balance, and being able to take a nice family vacation is not an unreasonable expectation of any family where the parents are working hard to give their children a good education. (Though I hasten to add, from my own childhood experiences, that good family vacations need not be expensive.)
Money is not a panacea. It doesn’t fix everything. So yes, even the very wealthy can have problems. It’s a step in the right direction, I suppose, if I at least stop being automatically unsympathetic to the wealthy. That doesn’t require me to be sympathetic, though it could lead to it. Oh, the places Torah can take you…
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this week’s parasha:
Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy