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I recently read in the New York Times that Donald Trump is getting a good deal of support for his presidential bid from Evangelical Christians. The author of the piece found this to be strange, and I agree. And it’s not only Trump. For years now, the Christian right has been embracing Republican candidates who argue against what I always thought were the Christian virtues – in theory, at least - of charity, compassion, and a commitment to help the poor. These values now seem to have been rejected by these people, with wealth, greed, and material success now being privileged as the true Christian way.
Sadly, many Jews seem to have embraced this world-view as well, and the language one hears being used against President Obama – socialist, communist, wants to share the wealth – all too often comes from Jewish circles – typically Orthodox and neo-con ones - as well as from the Christian right.
A reading of this week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei, makes it clear how wrong this approach is. The many laws about sharing the wealth, which demand of the land-owner that he share his crops with the poor, landless people of his community, typically called “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow”, and which includes non-Jews as well, make it clear that the language of corporate, Fox News, Tea Party, neo-con, America, which blames, demeans and attacks the poor, argues against giving working people a living wage and guaranteed health care, and attacks unions, goes directly against the Torah’s more compassionate, kind, and inclusive approach.
I don’t know how one can read the laws of sharing one’s crops, which include leaving a corner of one’s field, the skipped-over or left-behind grapes and sheaves of grain, and some olives from one’s tree, for the poor, without understanding that, yes, we are meant to share the wealth. The one percent – those, in the time of the Torah, who owned land (and were probably more than one percent) – must give some of their bounty to those who do not, and are therefore systemically locked into poverty. (How to radically change that system, and solve, rather than alleviate, the problem of poverty, is a different and important question.)
Perhaps the most relevant law in parshat Ki Teitzei for us to think about today is the one that demands that we not take advantage of a hired worker, who is assumed to be landless, and therefore depends on working for someone with property for his livelihood. This means we must not withhold his salary but, rather, pay him at the end of his shift. The Ramban explains (Devarim, 24,16) that, since the worker depends on his daily salary for his very life, we must insure that he receives it on time, or else he may have nothing with which to feed and shelter himself and his family. The Ramban explains the law that a lender must return collateral to the borrower if and when he needs it – such as a blanket or cloak – and not hold on to it, in the same way: we, the well-off, must make sure that he, the poor laborer, can live a normal, healthy life. This concern extends to the law that certain basic, necessary utensils, needed to prepare food, may never be taken as collateral – they are needed “in order to live.”
In all these cases, the wealthy employer or lender must look beyond the legal details and the power (im)balance of his arrangement with his worker – his “rights” as an employer or lender - and make sure that his employee is able to sustain himself. He has to worry about what will happen to his worker as a result of his employment or lending policies; will he really be able to “make a living”? This concern for the rights of the poor goes so far as to forbid a lender from entering the home of a borrower to take the collateral; he must respect the poorer, weaker person’s rights and space and wait outside for the collateral to be brought to him. If there is a better argument for a minimum wage which is also a living wage, or for universal health care, or for fair mortgage and loaning practices, or collective bargaining, please let me know.
All in all, a reading of the laws in the parsha make clear how wrong-headed and anti-halachic the positions taken by Trump and most of his fellow Republicans against caring for the working and non-working poor are - and I haven't even gone into the Torah's concern for the "stranger"! Frankly, the only candidate who seems to be espousing Torah values regarding economic policy right now is Bernie Sanders.
I can’t really hope to change any Evangelical minds out there; I don’t think they will be reading this. But those of you who are reading this dvar Torah, who were thinking along the lines of these right wingers, and are perhaps even thinking of voting for one of them, God forbid – read the Parsha, wise up, and do the right thing!
Rabbi Shimon Felix