At the close of 2013, our representatives refused to extend expiring unemployment benefits, cutting 1.3 million people from a crucial source of income. They also proposed major changes to the food stamp program, slashing benefits, adding work requirements, and mandating drug testing. Meanwhile, the same representatives who demand an end to public support of the poor happily advocate continued government assistance for corporations, even as new legislation and court orders enhance the voice of the wealthy in elections, thereby ensuring that their demands are heard above those of the poor. A static class system can crystalize in this climate. Indeed, it increasingly seems to be the case that, in 21st Century America, we will have a permanent wealthy minority with all the power, and a perpetually poor majority with no voice or influence.
This should be alarming to those who cherish biblical values. The Torah mandates social and economic mobility. Thus, even while it allows slavery (in this sense it is unfortunately a product of its ancient time and place), Exodus radically proposes that slaves must be offered their freedom after six years of servitude (21:2). The Torah cannot countenance a society in which the poor are doomed to remain perpetually poor, and the rich continually afforded unfettered access to all the wealth. Neither should we, and we must demand the same of our leaders.
The Torah cannot countenance a society in which the needs of the poor and disadvantaged are not heard. God hears the cries of the immigrants and the impoverished, and demands we must as well, reserving a special form of anger for those people and those societies that ignore the needs of the needy (Exodus 22:20-26). Are we listening? Are we responding? Are we expecting our leaders to do the same?
True, Deuteronomy admits, “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (15:11). Even so, it demands, “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs” (15:7).
We live in a republic, a representative democracy. This means that while certain of our leaders may be guilty of perpetuating this disturbing cycle of hard-heartedness against the poor, all of us are responsible for allowing it to happen. In 2014, will we take ownership of our calling to build a society whose hearts and hands remain open to those most in need.