Opening Our Hearts and Our Hands

Rabbi Shai Held

Parashat Re'eih

None of the Five Books of Moses is more passionately concerned with the plight of the vulnerable than Deuteronomy, and no chapter in Deuteronomy more powerfully expresses that concern than chapter 15, which focuses on remission of debts and manumission of slaves. In the context of Deuteronomy, one scholar writes, Deuteronomy 15 is “the central and signature affirmation of [God’s] rule.”1 It is, another adds, “the definitive chapter for discerning the centrality of Deuteronomy’s concern that access to the blessing of God be available to all the members of the community, including those who, out of need and position, are least likely to enjoy the blessing.”2 Deuteronomy 15 operates on two levels simultaneously. At one level, it puts forward concrete solutions to the predicaments faced by the poor. But at another, deeper level, it strives to shape a social ethic, to transform Israel into a community of mutual care and concern. As always, Deuteronomy makes a claim on our hearts as well as our deeds.3 When confronted with the sufferings of the needy, Deuteronomy wants us to act decently and also, crucially, to care deeply.

In broad outline, our chapter offers remedies for each of three significant challenges the destitute face. The Torah responds to the inability to repay debts by insisting that debts be remitted every seven years (15:1-6). It responds to the difficulty of acquiring loans by exhorting Israel not to refuse loans to those who need them (15:7-11). And it ameliorates the ancient institution of debt slavery by placing a limit of six years on the tenure of an indentured servant (15:12-18).4

But Deuteronomy is not content to stop there. It goes much further, attempting to instill in the Israelites a sense that they are one large family, with all the care and compassion, responsibility and obligation that family ties entail. One word in Deuteronomy 15 merits special attention—ah, or brother (or, perhaps better, kinsman). Repeatedly, as the Torah lays out the laws aimed at alleviating the sufferings of the poor, the latter are referred to as brothers—and not just as brothers, but as “your brothers” (15:2, 3, 7, 9, 11, 12). In part, the word “brother” distinguishes members of the community from outsiders; in Deuteronomy’s vision, the former merit greater concern than the latter.5 But the constant invocation of brotherhood points primarily in another direction: It “indicates an emphasis on the relationship... Those with whom one lives as brother and sister always have a proper claim on one’s compassion and care. Where [the] term—brother/sister or neighbor—is applicable…enmity, disdain, negligence, and disregard are out of order.”6 Bible scholar Walter Houston astutely explains that Deuteronomy intends “to depict the relationship between members of the national community as if it were an extended family or clan…‘Brothers,’ whatever their degree of blood relationship, should genuinely act as brothers; that is, with generosity, not with hard-heartedness.”7

Why is that so important in this context? Consciously or not, explicitly or not, it is extremely easy for people to imagine that socio-economic inequality points to some real, deep, metaphysical inequality, as if the rich were in some ultimate way worth more than the poor. The Torah exhorts Israel to remember that socio-economic status tells us nothing at all about the real worth of people.8 It reminds us that “creditors have a relationship to debtors in this community that transcends shared economic reality. Among members of this community, economic realities are not definitional; rather, what is definitional is a common memory of the Exodus; a common blessing in the land; and a common allegiance to the God of Exodus and land.”9 Similarly, when Deuteronomy legislates how an Israelite king ought to rule, it goes out of its way to reinforce the point that ultimately the king is just another one of “your brothers” (17:15) and emphasizes how imperative it is that he not imagine himself greater than his brothers (17:20). The Torah reminds judges, who may be tempted to grandiosity or haughtiness, that both litigants standing before them are their “brothers” (1:16). As Bible scholar Jeffrey Tigay points out, “Deuteronomy regularly uses this term [ahim, brothers] to emphasize the equality and fraternity of all Israelites, whether king or servant, prophet or king.”10

If anything, one could argue that in some respects, the poor are more important to God than the rich—or, at least, that they have a greater, more urgent claim on God’s attention. Deuteronomy warns that if the Israelite is “mean” to his needy kinsman and gives him nothing, “He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt” (15:9). Note how radical this is: Exodus teaches that the Israelites must not oppress widows and orphans. God threatens the people: “If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I shall put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Exodus 20:21-22). Deuteronomy radicalizes Exodus’ teaching: It is not just active oppression of the poor that God finds intolerable, but even a refusal to be generous to them. Or, perhaps we can view this a bit differently: Deuteronomy insists that refusing to extend a loan to the poor is tantamount to oppressing them. More, Deuteronomy seeks to jolt the powerful: Although the poor lack socio-economic power, it insists, they do have a very different kind of power—the ability to bring down the wrath of God on a society that does not reach out to help them.11 (In part, the theological appeal serves to bolster a commitment that obviously cannot be legally enforced.)

Every seventh year, debt slaves are set free—and Deuteronomy again radicalizes the requirements laid out in Exodus. Not only is the tenure of indentured servitude given a firm limit of six years (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 15:12), but the Israelite is enjoined to help the newly freed slave achieve a fresh economic start: “When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed. Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you” (15:13-14). To send someone back out into the world with nothing is almost to guarantee that he or she will fall back into debilitating debt. Deuteronomy mandates that the Israelite not inflict such economic helplessness on one who has served him. “The teaching is willing to override all conventional ‘common sense’ economics in the interest of creating and sustaining a viable social fabric in which all members have the means to participate effectively. The economy must yield to the viability of the community.”12 

Deuteronomy’s teaching on manumitting slaves—and providing for them as they leave—concludes by appealing to Israel’s experience of bondage and liberation: “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today” (15:15). On one level, of course, this is a plea for empathy—since you know what slavery feels like, you ought to treat the slave kindly and generously.13 More profoundly, Deuteronomy reminds the slaveholder, who perhaps feels regret about losing his slave, that he, too, was not long ago a slave—and just as God freed him and restored his dignity, he, too, now has the opportunity to do that for one of his kinsmen. More powerfully still, when God redeemed the Israelites from bondage, God did not merely set them free; God also provided for them and helped them achieve the dignity they now possess. God summons the Israelite to do the same—not simply to manumit the slave but also to furnish him with provisions for the way forward. Giving gifts to the emancipated slave is thus not just a mitzvah; it is a form of imitatio dei, of “walking in God’s ways.”14

Deuteronomy rules out endless servitude. “Such a provision is radical,” Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, “for it shatters the conventional practices of loans, credits, interests, mortgages, and debt management by which any conventional market economy functions.”15 The goal, therefore, is to prevent the emergence of a permanent underclass. Deuteronomy’s aim is “to rob debt of its tyrannical power” and thus “to limit human misery.”16

There is a deep tension in our chapter. The opening verses imply the presence of poverty in Israelite society (15:1-3). But Deuteronomy is not content merely to ameliorate the suffering of the poor. It dreams bigger, telling the people that if they obey God’s will, poverty can be eliminated. “There shall be no needy among you… if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day” (15:4-5). (This refers not just to the laws about treatment of the poor, but to Deuteronomy’s social and religious vision more broadly.) And yet the Torah seems skeptical that the utopian possibility it holds out will be realized in practice, so it pulls back again into a sober realism: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your midst” (15:11). Although verse 11 offers what is clearly a “more realistic appraisal” of Israel’s future, verses 4-5 make a claim that is at once inspiring and unsettling: Although there all but surely will be poor amongst Israel, there need not be.17 

The Torah’s simple but radical claim is that the plight of the poor is our responsibility. A society in which there are no economic second-chances, let alone one with a permanent underclass, is intolerable to God. To be sure, it can be difficult to discern just how the Torah’s vision should guide us in modern times. Ideological polemics notwithstanding, there is no one-to-one correspondence between Deuteronomy 15 and any particular contemporary social policy. But we must avoid the temptation to domesticate the Torah, to admire its dream even as we silence its message. It is a religious imperative to build a society in which the poor are seen and treated as truly equal, and to work to ensure that entrenched poverty does not rob people of the dignity of opportunity. Well-intentioned people will no doubt disagree about how best these goals can be achieved, but we are nevertheless obligated to keep them firmly in mind. Cynicism and empty rhetoric have no place in a life of religious integrity; we are summoned to open both our hearts and our hands. Deuteronomy makes clear that only a society truly committed to alleviating the suffering of those ravaged by poverty is worthy of God’s blessing.

1 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (1997), p. 188.

2 Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “The Way of Torah,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 8 (1987). pp. 17-27; passage cited is on p. 25. Cf. the words of Walter Houston: Within the Torah, “there can be no doubt that the Deuteronomic code is the most consistently concerned with the poor and with marginal groups in society, and as an expression of that concern, ch. 15, vv. 1-8 takes a central place.” Walter Houston, “‘You Shall Open Your Hand To Your Needy Brother’: Ideology and Moral Formation in Deut. 15,1-18,” in The Bible in Ethics, ed. John W. Rogerson et al (1995), pp. 296-314; passage cited is on p. 299.

3 Cf. what I have written about Deuteronomy’s concern with both emotion and action in “Coveting, Craving... and Being Free,” CJLI Parashat Va’Ethanan 5774, available here.

4 This paragraph summarizes Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (1996), p. 144.

5 Tigay writes: “The distinction between citizens and foreigners may be due to the fact that forgiving debts is an extraordinary sacrifice. Collecting debts is a legitimate right that members of a society are willing to forgo only on behalf of those who have a special familylike claim on their generosity.” He adds, in more practical terms, that since foreigners were normally only present in a country in order to engage in trade, goods or money they received on credit were usually investments or advance payments on goods, not loans due to poverty. Tigay, Deuteronomy, p.146.

6 Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy (1990), pp. 136-137.

7 Houston, “‘You Shall Open Your Hand,’” p. 307.

8 Cf. what I have written about human equality in “Another World to Live in: The Meaning of Shabbat,” CJLI Parashat Behar 5774, available here.

9 Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (2001), p. 164.

10 Tigay, Deuteronomy (1996), p. 12. Cf. what I have written in “‘Do Not Be Afraid of Anyone’: On Courage and Leadership,” CJLI Parashat Devarim 5774, available here.

11 Cf. Houston, “‘You Shall Open Your Hand,’” p. 309.

12 Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, p. 167.

13 On Exodus and empathy, cf. what I have written in “Turning Memory into Empathy: The Torah’s Ethical Charge,” CJLI Parashat Mishpatim 5774, available here.

14 Cf. the words of Bible scholar Peter Craigie: “The call to remember [the Exodus] was not simply in order to evoke pity or sympathy for the slave, which would lead to generosity. Rather, they were to remember that, when they had been slaves, God had loved them; freed them, and made ample provision for them; as sons of God (Deuteronomy 14:1), they should do no less to the manumitted slaves in the seventh year.” Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (1976), p. 239.

15 Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, p. 164.

16 Richard D. Nelson, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (2002), p. 190.

17 Craigie, Deuteronomy, p. 237.