The liberal bias of the Torah

This week’s Torah portion is R’eih.  The word in Hebrew means “see”.  It is a command.  Enjoined upon the Jewish people to observe both the blessings and curses that life can contain.  The portion outlines a series of laws for the people to observe, with reward and punishment accordingly.  You can read the portion here.

Usually when talking about the portion for the week, we focus on the Torah.  But I propose that we actually look to the Haftarah, or accompanying prophetic reading, to understand what this portion is really about.

This week’s Haftarah portion comes from Isaiah.  Chapter 55 Verse 1 reads: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye for water, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  Whether rich or poor, come and get your fill.  In a highly capitalistic world, this verse is an interesting affirmation of human worth regardless of wallet size.

Many think of the safety net as consisting of basic needs: food, water, and shelter.  In the verse above, though, Isaiah follows basic needs (water and food) with items that seem more optional: wine and milk.  While the prophet seem to indicate an understanding that basic needs are important, why add these seemingly superfluous or luxurious items?  After all, we hardly need wine or milk to survive, items especially precious in the ancient times in which this portion was written.

Perhaps anticipating this question, Isaiah says in the next verse: “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?  And your gain for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”  He reminds us that not by bread alone do we live.  To paraphrase the famous workers hymn, we want both bread and roses.  That satisfaction, contentment, wholeness, and pleasure are worthy goals in and of themselves, even foundational.  That once you have your basic needs filled, you can and should have the blessing to enjoy these joys as well.  They are not, then, luxuries.  But rather simply the higher steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Perhaps tellingly, a psychological model shaped like a pyramid, like the ones our ancestors were forced to build in bondage in Egypt.  That pursuing self actualization can free us of the unfair burdens placed on us in society.

If the Torah portion is about rules, then the Haftarah seems to contradict it with a focus on fulfillment above payment.

Today I noticed something at an American public library that puts this Torah and Haftarah portion in perspective- and into conversation.

I had reserved a computer to use and a man, seemingly someone who might be living on the street, was struggling to get up from his chair.  The librarian asked if he needed an ambulance, and he said no.  He asked if he could use the bathroom, but the guard gently escorted him towards the exit.  He looked tired and thirsty.

While I didn’t catch the whole exchange, I couldn’t help but think about the struggle between rules and compassion.  I don’t think the security guard or librarian meant harm.  After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules of the library for the good of the public.  And the library is not equipped to be a homeless shelter, which requires special expertise.  I volunteered at one in high school.

And yet you have to wonder whether sometimes rules should take a back seat to compassion.  Would it really hurt to allow someone to use a bathroom?  Especially at a public institution built for the social good?  The good of learning, the higher pursuits in life?  Rules have a purpose, but sometimes need to be broken for our well-being.

This scenario doesn’t present easy answers.  And despite the title of my blog, I think that there is value to law and order in certain scenarios.  That while I usually read the Torah with a liberal lens, someone could read the same text and come to different conclusions.  That’s what being a pluralist means.

And yet, this incident demonstrates why we should read both the Torah and Haftarah portions.  Because you could very easily come away thinking that rules rule all if you only read the former.  When our prophetic tradition reminds us of the important of joy, of fulfillment, of satisfaction as deep Jewish values that belong to everyone, not just the wealthy.

If we shouldn’t have to pay for wine or milk, then can’t we let someone use the restroom?  Or build more public restrooms so you don’t have to pay (or beg for entrance) every time you need pee?

Not every society functions this way.  In Israel, everyone can use almost any restroom and get free water at any restaurant or café, even without buying anything.  Perhaps a remnant of the socialist kibbutz ethos that built the country.

My hope is that we can find a better balance of rules and the kind of compassion that allows anyone, no matter her or his wealth, to enjoy life.  May the Torah- and Haftarah- be a light towards a more just society.  Ken yehi ratzon- may it be so.

 

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog https://plantingrootsbearingfruits.wordpress.com/ or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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