While political unrest permeates the Middle East, fiscal unrest occupies Americans at home. Libertarians and Tea Partiers echo Ronald Reagan that government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. Opponents contend that government plays an important role in maintaining the nation’s general wellbeing. How do we find some perspective? Torah provides guidance.
Last week’s portion, Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11–34:35), offered God’s instruction to Moses: “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself being enrolled… a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight…” (Exod. 30:12–13). All men age twenty and up—of military age—were required to give the half-shekel towards maintenance of the Tabernacle. Interestingly, the text continues, “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel…” (Exod. 30:15).
The half-shekel, rather than benefitting the rich for whom it would be a pittance or harming the poor for whom it might be a burden, became an instrument of equality. In this one instance, each Israelite man shouldered the same responsibility as his neighbor—something like “one man, one vote.” No individual could take credit for providing more than anyone else or be accused of providing less.
A parallel exists in the Torah’s view of justice: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Exod. 23:2–3). That the rich not be shown favor we can readily understand. But that poverty should not constitute an excuse to tip the scales when a poor man wrongs someone in better circumstances again emphasizes the essential equality and dignity of each human being.
At the same time, people clearly share an obligation to assist and uplift others. Deuteronomy 14:28 establishes the tithe—a tenth of income to be set aside every three years for the Levites (who lacked tribal territory), the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Deut. 24:10–15 provides instructions for protecting the poor man—allowing him to keep the set of clothing he pledged for a loan (usually his only clothes with which to stay warm at night)—and paying a laborer at the end of each day so that he can buy food.
Yet Jewish law again insists on a strong measure of equality and shared effort among rich and poor. The Talmud advises that, “Even the beggar who is maintained by charity must himself practice charity” (Gittin 7b).
In no way should government waste tax revenues. But it must collect them to fulfill obligations it often can best meet. Citizens who turn their backs on the needs of others put the nation at risk to further their own selfish ends. The Midrash states, “The wicked are under the control of their heart, but the righteous have their heart under their control” (Genesis Rabbah 34:10). As federal, state and local governments seek to balance their budgets and reduce their deficits, may their hearts—and ours—be in the right place.
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