Torah emphasizes importance of liberty and justice for all

BY RABBI RANDY FLEISHER

We know the words so well, they are part of us. We are taught from childhood to recite, “with liberty and justice for all.” Because nobody utters, “with liberty and/or justice for all,” we understand that both are essential; that one is lessened without the other. Nowadays, freedom in our society is generally a given. But what of justice? The top one percent of our population are estimated to own between 40 and 50 percent of the nation’s wealth, more than the combined wealth of the bottom 95 percent. When it comes to African-Americans in particular, the story is even worse. The average white family living in poverty (annual income of less than $15,000 per year) at least has an average net worth of $10,000, while the average African-American family living in poverty has a net worth of zero. People use income to meet daily expenses; their wealth affects whether they can afford a home, how well they will be able to survive emergencies like the loss of a job or a medical crisis, and whether college for children is an option. There is similar inequity even at higher income levels. African-Americans whose paychecks put them into the category of “upper middle class” still posess half the wealth of whites who earn “lower middle class” salaries The awful legacy of slavery (not to mention the fact that African-Americans were shut out of virtually every wealth building initiative during the New Deal) is injustice. “Rags-to-riches” stories are not yet obsolete, but the truth is that wealth begets wealth, and disadvantages mushroom, creating an ongoing disparity.

From the mountain top, the Israelites heard a different story. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land (yes, the Liberty Bell’s inscription comes from this portion) for all its inhabitants. As in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, this declaration of freedom requires justice. And the Torah delivers, with her plan of the Jubilee year. For a generation, unbridled capitalism is the norm-based on skill, luck, or hard work, some may make great gains in wealth; while others, due to deficiency, laziness, or bad fortune, will suffer tremendous loss. Then the Jubilee would kick in, and “…each returns to their holding…” The children of the wealthy would not inherit the fortune, and the offspring of the poverty striken would not be saddled with the burden.

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It is much too late to enact the Jubilee, but we can learn its lessons? Those of us with means must stop relentlessly isolating ourselves from the economically disadvantaged. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach z’l imagined, even the wealthy land owners shared in the communal joy of the Jubilee wealth redistribution because it was their neighbors who benefited! When we stop living together and going to school together, we no longer have a stake in each other’s lives. It is also vital that we move against the grain and push for more taxation on estates. As billionaire Warren Buffet (whose children will inherit a significantly smaller proportion of his wealth than will world wide efforts to combat poverty) understood, it is fundamentally unfair to persist with a system that perpetuates wealth in the same few families leaving little opportunity for anybody else.

Let the shofar be heard throughout the land: There is no liberty without justice!

Rabbi Randy Fleisher of Central Reform Congregation prepared this week’s Torah Portion.