By Rabbi Charles Feinberg
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17.
This week’s portion is an expansive collection of laws regarding idolatry and idolators, false prophets and animal flesh we can consume. There are also laws regarding the treatment of the poor and of slaves, and a description of the pilgrimage holidays: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.
Laws regarding the poor stand out because the Torah emphasizes that we should be generous with those in need. “Don’t harden your heart or shut your fist from your needy kinsman,” the Torah commands.
Instead, we must open our hands and lend the poor money sufficient to meet their needs. The Torah is quite aware how easy it is for us to turn away from those in need with excuses such as it is too much trouble to help or that the poor are not truly needy. Thus, the Torah urges us to give readily to the poor and not to have any regrets for God will bless us for doing so. Moreover, the poor will never cease from the land and that is why God commands us to extend our hand to the poor.
The Torah recognizes that the poor may need to sell themselves into slavery to survive and/or pay off their debts. The poor can be slaves for at the most six years. In the seventh year, they must be sent free. Once again, the Torah is concerned that those set free not fall back into slavery. Thus, the Torah urges us when we set our slaves free not to send them away empty handed. Generously supply the freed slave with gifts from the flocks, from the granary and from the wine vats.
The Torah’s concern here should direct our attention to how we do or don’t help the slaves of our own time who are released. Many of the incarcerated in our country are comparable to the slave leaving his or her master after a period of servitude. Many people in prison in our country have committed crimes because they were destitute and could not see any way out of their predicament. Some could not pay their debts because of their addiction to illicit drugs or alcohol.
Too often the incarcerated leave prison without sufficient education and skills to successfully reenter the community. When they do reenter the community, they face one obstacle after another. Returning citizens often cannot find a place to live because they spent time in prison. Most employers are reluctant or refuse to hire a returning citizen. We place many stumbling blocks before them.
As a society we should heed the call of this week’s parshah to be generous with those who are poor or who are being freed from servitude. Our prisons should not be just a place for punishment.
Instead, prisons should focus on rehabilitation, education and medical and psychological support. Upon their release, the incarcerated should have the necessary skills to reenter the work force. We need to break down the barriers that prevent returning citizens from finding a place to live and place to work.
Too often we are not generous to those leaving prison and yet we are often surprised by the high rates of recidivism in our country. It is time for us to hold our prisons accountable to the ideal that the Torah presents in this week’s portion. By doing so, we can create more peace and less violence for everyone.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg is the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.