Excerpted from a sermon by
Senior Rabbi Janet R. Marder
Congregation Beth Am
Los Altos Hills, CA
March 29, 2013
It happens that Buena Vista Mobile Home Park is in my neighborhood; it’s less than a five-minute walk from my house. Barron Park Elementary School is just down the street from me. So I asked myself: what about us? What will our neighborhood lose if Buena Vista closes down?
There’s a brief, enigmatic story in the Talmud that speaks to this question in a powerful way. It’s found in tractate Bava Batra, which deals with torts and matters of civil law. First we have the Mishna (Bava Batra 1:5), the earliest level of the text, completed in the year 200 of the Common Era. The Mishna states the law. It says that if several residents are living in homes that share a common courtyard, they may jointly decide to build a gate or gatehouse for the courtyard. Furthermore, they may require that all the residents chip in to pay the cost of this gate and gatehouse. This reminds us of similar legislation today, involving the residents of a condominium complex – the owners of an apartment may be forced to pay for improvements to the common area.
Then the Gemara (Bava Batra 7b), composed in the centuries after the Mishnah, comments on this law. It says: “This implies that the building of a gate house is a laudable thing. However, there is [the story of] that righteous person whom Elijah spoke with [regularly]. He built a gate house for his house, and Elijah no longer spoke with him.”
The Gemara sees a problem. From the statement of the law in the Mishnah it sounds like building a gate for your courtyard is a good thing. It’s making an improvement – it increases security, and that raises the value of the property.
But then the Sages remember a story about Elijah, the prophet who, according to legend, continues to wander the world, often in the guise of a beggar. In the story they remember, Elijah used to visit a certain tzaddik, a certain righteous man, but after the man built himself a gate and gatehouse, Elijah stopped visiting. Why? Why did Elijah no longer befriend him if there’s nothing wrong with building a gate?
The answer comes from a third, even later level of the text. Rashi, the famous French rabbi of the 12th century, tells us in his commentary on the Talmud that Elijah no longer spoke with that righteous man after he built his gate “because it walls off the call of the poor people who are crying out [for money or assistance] and their voices cannot be heard.” In other words, this particular gate served as a buffer to shield its owner from the poor, to block out the sound of their voices calling for help. Elijah doesn’t want to visit a man, no matter how righteous he might seem, who walls himself off from the poor.
There are many reasons, of course, why a person might want to build a gate that blocks out the sights and the sounds of the poor. Gates give us security and privacy and peace of mind. It’s more comfortable to live in a safe, clean, quiet neighborhood that has nothing to offend our eyes or ears. It’s more pleasant to look at luxury homes and beautifully manicured lawns than it is to see a trailer park, or a low-income housing complex, or a half-way house, or a homeless person on the street. Rashi understood the impulse to keep the poor at a distance even back in the 12th century.
But Elijah won’t be dropping by communities like these anytime soon. And God, it seems, doesn’t think much of gated communities or zoning regulations that separate the wealthy from everyone else, leaving us in separate, homogeneous, mutually isolated enclaves.
Why does Jewish tradition want us to see the faces of the poor and to hear their voices? Here’s one simple answer. A recent study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy analyzed charitable giving all over the United States, breaking down giving rates by ZIP code. It found that generosity varies greatly from one part of the country to another, and from one income group to another.
Here’s one of the more interesting findings: rich people are not the most generous givers. Households with incomes of between $50,000 and $75,000 donate on average 7.5% of their income to charity. That compares with about 4% for those with incomes of $200,000 or more.
But here’s a fascinating twist. It turns out that higher-income people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more on average than high-income people who live in wealthier neighborhoods. Dr. Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, says that this statistic is consistent with what he’s found in years of research on income and charitable giving. “The more wealth you have,” he says, “the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become.”
It’s not that rich people aren’t generous or caring, Dr. Piff says. They’re just isolated. They don’t encounter many poor people in their daily lives, and as we all know, “out of sight, out of mind.” He comments: “Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way towards restoring the empathy or compassion deficiency that we otherwise see.” [See: http://www.npr.org/2012/08/20/158947667/study-reveals-the-geography-of-charitable-giving]
So there are practical reasons why our tradition might object to towns where local teachers and coaches and landscapers can’t afford to live, and the children of the wealthy don’t go to school with kids whose parents clean houses or run a dry cleaning shop. The Torah envisions a very different sort of community, one based on a sense of social solidarity and common humanity. Says the book of Leviticus: “If your neighbor, being in straits, comes under your authority…let him live by your side as your kinsman” [Lev.25:35]. It means, says scholar Baruch Levine, that if a poor individual falls into debt and has to mortgage or sell his land so that he becomes a tenant farmer, you may not evict him; he must be allowed to go on living “by your side,” as a member of the community [See JPS Torah Commentary on Leviticus, p.178].
The Torah commands us to open our hands to those who are in need. But if we hide the poor and the working class from our sight, we’re apt to forget about them. We become self-obsessed and callous in our personal lives. We make political decisions that suit our own interests and ignore their impact on the majority of our fellow citizens. Our kids don’t realize that they live at the very top of the income ladder, in an exclusive island of privilege. They have no concept of what it’s like to grow up in a typical American family. And that way of life impoverishes us all.
“Do not hide yourself from your own flesh,” says the prophet Isaiah [58:7]. Do not turn your back on your own kin. For the prophet, we are all one family, united in our humanity, and without one another, our community is not whole.
Think about that dramatic moment towards the beginning of the Passover Seder, when we lift up the matzah and we say: “Ha lachma anya – this is the bread of poverty. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Ha lachma is an invitation. But more than that, it challenges us to ask: Who is welcome at our table, and who will live by our side? What kind of community are we? What kind of community do we want to be?
Note: For discussion of the Talmud Bava Batra text, see Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism, by Dr. Aryeh Cohen (Academic Studies Press, 2012)