Poverty, Violence, and the Torah

A Drash for the Poor People's Campaign
May 29, 2018Rabbi Rachel Timoner

This past weekend, we observed Memorial Day, when we honor and remember generations of Americans who went to war and gave their lives for freedom, for democracy, for the noblest principles of this nation. This weekend, we also learned two things: ICE, Immigration Control and Enforcement, is forcibly removing children from their parents at our Southern border; and a school board in Northern Georgia voted unanimously to arm its school teachers with guns, hoping to become the first in a national trend. This Memorial Day, when we bring our attention to the lives lost through war – sometimes unnecessary war – perhaps we should consider whether our instinct to solve complex human problems with violence and the threat of violence is availing us. This year, we will invest $700 billion in our military, while 250,000 people will die in this country from poverty. The President is calling for a $967 million increase in ICE’s budget of $8.2 billion for this next fiscal year, while almost half of our population, 140 million people, live in poverty. The gun and ammunition manufacturing industry brought in $13.5 billion in revenue this year while one in five families with children experienced food insecurity in the richest country in the world. Perhaps it is time for a moral re-evaluation.

On May 10, 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a now-famous speech in which he said, “The Triple Evils of poverty, racism and militarism are forms of violence that exist in a vicious cycle. They are interrelated, all-inclusive, and stand as barriers to our living in the Beloved Community.” Soon thereafter, he launched the Poor People’s Campaign to address the nation’s blindness to human need.  He said: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” 

Today, fifty years later, inequality between rich and poor and between white and black is worse than it was Dr. King’s time. This month, the Rev. William Barber is leading the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, a 40-day campaign uniting tens of thousands of people to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and our nation’s distorted morality. This week, the week of Memorial Day, the theme of the campaign is militarism. 

It just so happens that this week in our Torah we read parashat B’ha’alotecha, in which we find the most militaristic language in all of our liturgy, words featured in our Torah service:

Vay’hi binsoa ha’aron, vayomer moshe: kumah adonai v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha
And when the ark would set out, Moses would say: “Rise up, Adonai, may your enemies be scattered, may your opponents flee from before you!” (Numbers 10:35) 

This language reminds us that for our ancestors, the ark of the covenant was not only a container for Torah, God’s instructions for living a good life, it served as a secret weapon by which Adonai Tseva’ot, the God of Armies, empowered us to defeat enemy nations.

The Torah is not a pacifist text. The Book of Numbers is rife with battles, the mustering of armies, victories and defeats. But that’s not the whole story in Torah. Our experience with Pharaoh’s army in Egypt taught us that we must not worship might, and that there is a moral power deserving of our allegiance, a power greater than the most powerful human army. Most importantly, the story does not end there. As Rabbi Jonathan Kligler teaches, we can see through the liturgy of our Torah service that our Sages reframe and subvert the militaristic imagery of Torah to turn it into a message of peace.

As we take the Torah from the ark on Shabbat morning, we follow the text of Numbers 10:35 with the words of Isaiah 2:3:

Ki mitzion tetze Torah udvar adonai mirushalayim
For out of Zion comes forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

Through these words from Isaiah, our Sages are referencing his grand, messianic vision for peace. In the very next verse we read:

V’shafat bein hagoyim v’hochiach l’amim rabim. V’chititu charvotam l’itim v’chanitoteihem l’mazmerot. Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yilm’du od milchamah
And God will judge among the nations and settle their disputes. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

In Kligler’s words: “Our sages took the most famous and compelling vision of peace in the entire Bible and juxtaposed it against the marching orders of the Book of Numbers. As we parade the Torah around the sanctuary and touch it and kiss it, our sages wanted Isaiah’s vision of peace echoing in our ears.” We have transformed a call to war into a call to peace.

Similarly, when the Torah is returned to the ark after the Torah reading, the Rabbis again use carefully selected verses from Torah to communicate a transformation of violence into harmony. They begin by bringing the rest of the passage from our parashah: 

Uvnucho yomar shuvah Adonai riv’vot alfei yisrael 
And when the ark would rest, Moses would say, “Bring back, O God, the many thousand troops of Israel.” (Numbers 10:36) 

This time they pair our parashah with a passage from the Book of Proverbs:

Etz chayim hi lamachazikim ba, v’tomcheha m’eushar. Dracheha darchei noam, v’chol netivoteha shalom 
The Torah is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it; all who uphold it may be counted fortunate, for its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. (Proverbs 3:18, 17)

In each case, our Sages retain our past while imagining a different future. They recognize that there are times when we must fight, for our survival and for our safety. But rather than allowing war to define us, they make it a counterpoint to the true message: we stand for a world not characterized by violence and bloodshed, not by swords and spears, but by ploughshares and pruning hooks, by fields full of food for all who are hungry. In Proverbs, the Torah becomes not a symbol of might and victory, but a pathway that, through careful study and reflection, can lead us away from the instinct to fight and toward pleasantness and peace.

As we stand with Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign this Memorial Day week, let us demand an end to the terror of ICE on our borders and on our streets. Let us demand a real response to the gun violence that is plaguing our nation, not a proliferation of arms in our schools. And let us demand a reappropriation from our bloated military budget to meet the basic needs of the 140 million people in this country who are living in poverty. Like our Sages before us, let’s transform a history of violence and bloodshed into a vision of peace and abundance for all.

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