Social Justice in the Parasha
-Rabbi Yuval Sherlo-
At first glance, "social justice" generally is taken to revolve around the concept of "giving" by those who have to those who do not. These acts of giving are first and foremost a product of statutory requirement: fair and timely payment to employees; direct employment allowing for proper receipt of all benefits; provision of handicapped access to public and private spaces; creation of pubic tenders free of nepotism and cronyism, and more. This notion of giving, however, goes beyond statutory obligation and includes the principles of kindness and mercy, concern born of solidarity with those who are incapable, who have exhausted all attempt at legal remedy and yet still remain sidelined from mainstream society. These two avenues of giving, statutory and charitable, are both one directional and non-reciprocal.
This idea emphasizes the understanding that the misery of the "have nots" is compounded by the fact that they cannot be part of those who give; they cannot participate in the giving. To give is not just a duty; it is also a great privilege, and the one who gives feels part of a greater undertaking, the creation and formation of a higher enterprise, whether this giving is in the context of charity to an individual or a larger communal initiative. The halacha, which demands, for example, that even the pauper give charity, does not only obligate him, but also provides him with a great privilege and considers even his small contribution a great deed in and of itself. In this vein, we are familiar with a fascinating point made by the Sages with respect to the mincha (meal) offering. The Sages emphasized that despite the fact that the cost of the mincha, which was comprised of ingredients grown in the ground, was significantly lower than an animal offering, it had a unique quality to it in that it allowed even the poorer elements of society to partake in the act of giving.
Allowing open access to the world of giving can be done in two ways. The first is displayed in the weekly Torah portion that we will read in two weeks. The Torah states that each individual was required to give a half shekel toward the construction of the Tabernacle. The Torah emphasizes that "the rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel," i.e. the contribution is egalitarian by nature, every man is obligated and, in light of the above, has the privilege, to participate in it and in this way every man stands equal not only in the "receiving" but also in the "giving." On the other hand, in this week's Torah portion, which presents the opening salvo in the fundraising operation for the construction of the Tabernacle, each person is presented with the opportunity to contribute and is asked to do so to the best of his or her ability. These two avenues of giving, egalitarian giving on the one hand and open giving on the other, are the Torah's way of formulating an expression of this aspect of social justice.
I suggest that this unique perspective presented by the Torah can provide guidance and direction to all those who are engaged in matters that are connected to social justice. Along with the deep consideration given to providing each person with what they rightly and fairly deserve, we must also consider providing each person with the opportunity to give. The opportunities for giving are numerous and diverse. A person can give of their time, of their person and of their countenance. A person can give of their money, of their space and of their property. A person can give of their faculty, of their wisdom and of their skill. Because the avenues for giving are open to everyone, it is imperative that all those who are engaged in endeavors of social justice think not only about their own options for giving, but also about how to create giving opportunities for all those who wish to participate and who mistakenly think that they are not equipped to do so.
In the end, the Tabernacle was built through both egalitarian donations, i.e. each person gave an equal amount, and individual contributions, which allowed each person to also give as much as they could or desired. We must also adopt this two pronged approach with respect to all spaces and areas of public action. In this way, we must ensure that we are not only creating a space for giving, but also removing any deterrent that may prevent a person from achieving the sense of self-respect and self-importance that results from the recognition that their giving is possible and desirable.
Rabbi Yuval Sherlo - is a member of the managing board of Tsohar and is the head of the hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikva.