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Dignity of the poor

Parshat Ki Tezei

Deuteronomy  21:10 – 25:19

The continued economic dissonance and recession affects millions of people. Many in California and in our own community have lost their homes and jobs.  This is more than just fodder for the evening news this is the reality of our friends and neighbors including some of our fellow temple members. There are people who have lost their homes and condos to foreclosure through no fault of their own but because of the lack of employment opportunities in this rough and tumble economy.  For the individuals who are so deeply affected it is an embarrassing and harsh reality that once they had full employment and now are struggling to keep their heads above water. It is tough out there. Tough to find work in an economy that has few jobs and the competition for jobs is even rougher. It can be demoralizing to try and find work in today’s world.  (If you know of work or a job posting, do pass it on to us at temple so we can share the word with others!)


And for some who do find work they are working in jobs well below their training simply to put food on the table. They might have employment but be under employed –only able to find part time positions which don’t provide benefits. While yet other people take jobs that have no benefits at all because many businesses in cost saving measures have eliminated benefits   We have in our country created entire new classes of the working poor.  These are the people who work but can’t lift themselves out of poverty because they earn so little to begin with that they are in a vicious cycle. This is a real life description not of others-but of people we know.  People like you and me.


What of their dignity?  In all the debates over our social safety net, whether unemployment insurance, disability, Medicare cuts or mortgage loan restructuring, we cannot simply have these discussion in general.  But always with the faces of real people by our side.  One of the many problems in Washington, D.C. with the absolute standstill in Congress and political jockeying that is strangling our nation is that the debate lacks the faces of real people who are suffering daily.


In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tezei we are reminded of some very important advice in treating the worker and in particular those who are the working poor. We are reminded that whether the impoverished individual is a fellow countryman or a foreign worker that we have obligations to them.   Protecting their dignity is the important message of our tradition.  It is stressed not only in the Torah but even more so in the later rabbinic writing of the Mishnah and Gemorrah. We cannot just simply take their pledge-their collateral for a loan (in this case assumed to be a cloak) we have to protect their dignity.


It is written in Deuteronomy 24:10-15 from this week’s Torah portion:


When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge.

You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you. If he is a needy man, you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; you must return the pledge to him at sundown, that he may sleep in his cloth and bless you; and it will be to your merit before the Adonai your God. You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to Adonai against you and you will incur guilt.


If only the foreclosing banks and lending companies read their Bible!


Our tradition teaches we must uphold the individual’s dignity. If you lend money to someone and seek a pledge for repayment you can’t enter their home and take it. It is hard enough to ask for a loan but the lender cannot abuse the power inequity created by being the lender and the space of the individual must be honored.  They are not a slave.  Merely one who needs help! But more importantly, if the person needs the collateral to sleep or even to work (perhaps the collateral was the plow) you must let them utilize it in their work. If you take the plow as a pledge then they have no way of making a living! So you can’t take the tools of their trade as the collateral because if they can’t work then they have no way to repay the loan.


The Mishnah follows up on this passage in Baba Metziah Chapter 9: Mishnah Thirteen

1)            If one lent one’s fellow, he may exact a pledge from him only with the permission of a court, and he may not enter his house to take the pledge, as it is states, “You shall stand outside” (Deut. 24:11).

2)            If the borrower had two utensils, he may take one but must give back the other one

And he must give back the pillow at night and the plow during the day.

3)            And if the creditor dies he need not return the pledge to his heirs.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says:  “Even to the debtor himself he need only return the pledge within thirty days [of the loan], and after thirty days he may sell it with the consent of the court.

4)            A pledge may not be taken from a widow, whether she be rich or poor, as it states, “Do not take the a widow’s garment as a pledge” (Deut. 24:17).

5)            If one takes a millstone as a pledge he violates a negative commandment and he is also in violation of both parts [of the millstone], as it states, “Do not take a mill or an upper millstone as a pledge” (Deut. 24:6).

And they didn’t say just an upper millstone or a mill but anything that is necessary for food, as it states, “for that would be taking someone’s life as a pledge” (ibid.).


In our Mishnah-it expands these protections of the poor against the creditors. Now the creditor can only exact a pledge of collateral with the permission of the court.  The Rabbis are trying to protect the poor from having to pledge away their basic needs and the Rabbis are trying to keep the lenders and creditors from abusing the poor who are desperate to make ends meets. This is a protection to keep creditors from unfairly seizing property!


How forward thinking our tradition!


But all of this is instruction for us in these difficult days and times when some in the political world would demonize the poor and those for whom finding work has been difficult and challenging.  We must treat the worker with dignity.  Being poor is not a crime.  Being out of work is not always the fault of the individual. But for those of us who are able to provide jobs and or to provide the capital needed we should be reminded that you cannot do so thinking that you can squeeze whatever you want from those who work for you or wantonly walk over the humanity of those who need help.


We must always remember that all of us are created B’tzelem Elohim., in the image of God and that is one of the greatest principles of Jewish tradition.