D’var Torah for Ki Tetzei: How to treat the poor, the foreign, the powerless

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI, for parashat Ki Tetzei.


Today’s Torah reading began, “When you make a loan to your compatriot, you must not enter the house to seize the collateral.” The word translated as “compatriot” is re’acha: your fellow, your other, your neighbor. A lender may not enter the home, burst into the space, of a borrower. A lender must see the borrower as a fellow human being. If someone is truly needy, they may have given you their only blanket as collateral. You must not keep it overnight, Torah teaches; even if it’s collateral for a loan, give it back at night so the borrower can be warm.

Can you imagine a world in which creditors operated this way?

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.” If someone who is poor is working for you — whether they are a fellow member of your tribe, a citizen of your community, or a stranger, an immigrant — you must pay them their wages at the end of the day.

Reading this, I think of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed. She chose to live for a time working for an hourly wage, cleaning houses and hotel rooms, in order to write about the difficulties of that life. Her book offers an unflinching look at the “hidden costs” of being poor: for instance, paying more to rent a daily hotel room than one would pay for a comparable apartment, but if you can’t afford the first + last month + deposit, you can’t escape the cost of the daily rental. The poor have to buy food which is both more expensive, and less healthy, because they have no access to refrigeration or appliances with which to cook.

Can you imagine a world in which even the person mopping hotel rooms or doing janitorial work received a living wage, not waiting two weeks until payday but getting paid each day as the work is done?

“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn.” The stranger: the immigrant, the migrant worker, the person from across the border, the person from another town, the farm kid who’s moved to the city, the refugee, the person whose race or skin color or features are different from everyone else around. The fatherless: the child, the one who is uncertain, the one who has no protection, the powerless. Ensure that someone who has no one to take care of them knows that they wil be safe and cared-for, not preyed-upon or mistreated.

Can you imagine a world in which no one oppressed another person because they are poor or foreign or powerless?

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Eternal your God redeemed you from there.” Torah repeats this time and again. Remember that you have been mistreated, and never mistreat others. Remember that you experienced degradation, and never degrade others. Remember that you were caught in the narrow place, and have compassion for everyone who is in dire straits.

“When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow — in order that the Eternal your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” When you are harvesting your olive grove, the same is true. Whwn you are gathering grapes in your vineyard, the same is true. Share your abundance with those who don’t have enough. Share your abundance with immigrants and refugees, foreigners and strangers, people who are powerless, people who don’t look like you or talk like you. This is the path of blessing. Can you imagine walking on this path?

“Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” Get this through your heads, Torah seems to be saying. How many times do I have to tell you? Treat the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the immigrant, your neighbor and your “Other,” with kindness and compassion. Make sure they have warm clothes for winter and enough food on the table. Always remember that you have known loss and lack, confinement and constriction, and let that memory impel you to be righteous, to be kinder to others than the world has been to you.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we made our world really work this way?

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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