Parshat R’eih: Open Hearts & Hands

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, August 23, 2014: 27 Av 5774

Earlier this summer, the New York Times opinion section included an interesting social science piece whose title caught my attention: “Powerful and Coldhearted.” There’s something about the imagery of our human hearts being closed or open, soft or hard, that really moves me. By now, we know scientifically that emotions involve virtually our entire bodies, not simply our hearts. Still, the placement of our hearts at the center of our bodies, so close to that other vital zone of our spiritualized humanity, the lungs — from which our breath, our nishama, emanates — helps explain the power of this headline.

The article itself summarizes neuroscience research on empathy — how and when we feel the pain of others. Studies strongly suggest that people who are in high positions of power, or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful, are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive, or emotional perspective of others — compared to participants who are powerless, or made to feel so. Some psychologists explain that powerful people don’t attend well to those around them because they don’t really need them. Newer studies contend that when people experience power, their brains change, making them in effect less empathetic, at least temporarily.

This is not the place to follow those studies in detail. The Times article concludes thus: “The bad news is that the powerful are, by default and at a neurological level, simply not motivated to care. But the good news is that they are, in theory, redeemable.”

What is the purpose of Religion and Ethics if not to redeem us from our default, biologically-based positions? That is, to help us function — and relate to one another — at something beyond the neurological level; to give us genuine choices.

So it is at the outset of Parshat-R’eih in one of my favorite biblical openings: R’eh anochi noten lifnaychem hayom bracha oo’klalah: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” The rhetorical power of this verse grabs us, focusing our eyes and our attention on a sharp dichotomy. The next verses present a seemingly clear choice: follow Adonai’s commandments toward blessing or turn away from that path to be cursed.

The commandments dealt with in Parshat-R’eih relate to proper versus idolatrous worship, the diet required for holiness, the festival cycle, and measures to protect the poor. It is the last of these topics that I’d like to talk about with you this morning.

It turns out that in its plain language — its pshat — the Torah’s view of poverty here is not so clear. Chapter 15 provides guidelines for the Shmitah 7th year remission or release of debts, which aims to prevent a permanent underclass within the community of Israelites. Etz Hayim explains that “such a condition would be unfair to human beings, fashioned in God’s image, and dangerous to society as a breeding ground for lawlessness and irresponsibility.” Thus, explains Chapter 15: “Every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord.”

Yet when the Torah pauses to reiterate Shmitah’s basis as a mitzvah, it seems to equivocate, even contradict itself. Verse 4 proclaims: efes lo yeheyeh b’cha evyon: “There shall be no needy among you.” (Etz Hayim does not translate the initial efes ki, but other translations offer “Save that” or “Nonetheless,” thus qualifying the proceeding statement.) Three verses later, verse 7 begins ki yehyeh v’cha evyon: translated by Etz Hayim as “If, however, there is a needy person among you” but by others more strongly as “When there will be an indigent one among you.” Through various modes of punctuation, sentence structure, and interpretation, translators and commentators have endeavored to reconcile these statements and provide guidance.

For Ibn Ezra, poverty will endure because Israel will simply not listen to God’s commandments. Rashi is more optimistic: “When you do the will of the Omnipresent [Ha-makom] the needy will be among the other peoples and not among you; but if you do not do the will of the Omnipresent, the needy will be among you.” Richard Elliott Friedman takes verse 11’s ki lo yech-dahl evyon mikerev ha-aretz to mean “There won’t stop being indigent in the land” — and explains that poverty will not just come to a stop on its own one day, without any action by human beings; the poor will not just disappear. This being the case, he envisions God’s commanding us thus: “open your hand to your brother, the poor, your indigent in your land. There will be no poverty only if people act to end it.” Or as Etz Hayim casts this: “Therefore you must build the solution to poverty into the social structure, and not rely on people’s generosity.”

Needless to say, this is a topic that remains relevant. Remission of debts was revamped by Hillel during the late 2nd Temple-period using the prosbul to protect those who needed loans. Over the centuries and into our time, Jewish institutions small and large have been addressing the need for food, clothing, and shelter within our community and beyond it. We in Los Angeles have Jewish Free Loan, Sova, Path, and many more fine organizations. But the problem of poverty continues, and even grows. What further can we draw from this parsha as we largely-privileged Jews try to live in a way that merits blessing, rather than curse?

Beyond the parsha’s opening, for me its most important statement comes in the second half of chapter 15, verse 7: ki tametz et k’vavcha v’lo tikpotz et yadcha may-achecha haevyon:“Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” (Tich-potz, translated here as “harden ” is not the same Hebrew word used for God’s hardening Pharoah’s heart in Egypt, but that doesn’t matter to the point here.) The shoresh koof-pay-tzadi conveys drawing or tying together, shutting, contracting, withdrawing. Just saying this list of synonyms makes me feel constricted — up-tight if you will! The desired alternative is patoach tif-tach et yadecha: “rather you must open your hand.” This coupling of heart and hand brings to mind Yehudah Amichai’s titles “Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers”: gam ha-egrof haya pa-am yad patuach v’etzbaot and “Open Closed Open”: patuach sagoor patuach.” Ashrai and Birkat ha-Mazon speak of Adonai as poteach et yadecha, ooh masbeah l’chol chai ratzon — and some of us open wide our hands when chanting this line, appealing to God’s generosity and also imitating it.

Both in our personal and our communal lives, it is difficult to refrain from continually making a fist, and even harder not to harden our hearts. Like neurological research subjects, we find that our empathy often declines as our power increases. Samson Raphael Hirsch notices that the Torah uses the singular in lo t’ametz et l’vavcha: “You shall not make your heart unfeeling” and also in ki y’heyeh v’cha evyon: “If there will be among you a needy person.” And yet, he explains, “The Law in this instance has in mind the community and the individual alike; the obligation to care for the poor is incumbent equally upon the community as a whole and on each one of its members separately . . . . Both must work side by side, if the goal set by the Law is to be attained.”

One of the things I love about Judaism is its combination of idealism and realism — its facing human nature head-on, without sentimentality, even while continually challenging human beings to do better. Rashi glosses lo t’amaytz et l’vavcha v’lo tikpotz et yadcha: “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand” realistically but also with an eye to the ideal: “There are people who painfully deliberate whether or not they should give or not; therefore Scripture states ‘you shall not make your heart obstinate’. Then again, there are people who stretch their hand forth, showing a readiness to give — but then close it; therefore it is written ‘you shall not close your hand.’ Furthermore, the Torah teaches ki fa-toach tiftach: ‘You shall surely open your hand — even many times.’”

And yet, it is hard, very hard, to keep our hearts and hands open when facing even the poor of our immediate community — let alone the poor of our city, nation and world. It is difficult to keep our personal and family and professional and congregational lives in balance while also addresses the issue of poverty, along with so much other suffering here and elsewhere. I myself face a continual challenge, and that’s the main reason I’m volunteered to give this dvar Torah.

Fortunately for the Library Minyan and Temple Beth Am, Dianne Shershow quietly but insistently, always with a smile, reminds us that there is work to be done, and every little contribution — through giving money, material goods, or personal service — matters. Elliott Dorff continues to be our teacher in terms of contemporary Jewish ethics and morality, Aryeh Cohen has summoned the sources of Rabbinic Judaism in making a coherent argument for Justice in the City, and Miriyam Glazer is directing the talent and energy that made her a successful academic on behalf of American Jewish World Service. We are part of a Southern California Jewish community in which congregations and minyanim come together to distribute mishloah manot on Purim and provide pesachdik food on Passover. Furthermore, during the past year, teachers in the Social Justice Drashot Series provided larger perspectives.

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