Parashat Mishpatim 5777

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi, 24 February 2017

Not long ago, I received a disturbing e-mail. It compared the payment given by the government to old age pensioners and to asylum seekers and immigrants and claimed that old age pensioners should be paid more and asylum seekers less. What shocked me was not the figures given but the fact that the comparison was made in the first place. Quite apart from the fact that many asylum seekers receive no financial support at all and are left destitute, the comparison perpetuated a myth that is increasingly prevalent in our society: the myth of deserving and undeserving poor. The myth creates a scale of how deserving people are of support, with old age pensioners at the top and asylum seekers at the bottom.

Our older people are certainly deserve support, but this does not mean others are do not. It is too easy to categorise people as undeserving so that we are relieved of the responsibility of caring them. The unemployed are too often described by the press and the politicians as unwilling to work, even though finding a job can be extremely difficult, let alone work that is in keeping with someone’s skills and needs. Asylum seekers are only too willing to work, but the Government does not allow them to do so.

To blame people for the situation of dependency they find themselves in is to return down the path which led to the Victorian workhouse, where people who were already on the bottom rung of society were knocked even further down, punished for being poor. The film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ highlights the obstacles that people face when attempting to claim benefits they are entitled to and the cruelty of a system which often leaves them hungry, having to resort to foodbanks for themselves and their children. There may be individuals who chose not to work who could, and these examples are readily picked up by the press and make the front page. But they are exceptions, who make an easy target at at difficult time. It is always preferable to find someone else to blame rather than take a deep look at what is going wrong in our society.

Our Torah takes a rather different approach. It is no coincidence that our Sidra twice prohibits wronging the stranger. The stranger is the most vulnerable member of society. Strangers are at the margins, speaking a different language when they arrive, unfamiliar with our customs and how our society works. It is too easy to perceive them as different, as outside, as unworthy. We know what it is like to be perceived in that way, for not only in Egypt but throughout our history, we have been strangers. We have been excluded and despised. We have been blamed for the ills that beset society, from the Black Death to economic depression. Out of our experience has come an obligation to extend deep compassion to the stranger, for, as our Sidra states, ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ Already three thousand years ago, we had developed a sensibility to the needs and feelings of others. All the more because someone is different we must learn to show them empathy and compassion. And if we learn to show compassion for the stranger, then compassion for the poor, the orphan and the widow will follow, for they too are needy and our hearts must be open to all who need our care.

For Judaism, it is a privilege not a burden to be able to support those in need of care. Our Torah does not blame the poor for being poor. The question of whether someone deserved support simply did not arise. Rather, it is our obligation to order society so that there will be no poor. Meanwhile, the presence of people in need should open our eyes to suffering and make us aware of the needs of others, so that we will become more compassionate and caring of others.

Our sedra also commands us: ‘You shall not follow a multitude to do evil.’ At the moment, the multitude has created a climate where the poor are blamed for being poor and the stranger is blamed for many of the ills of society. We, of all people, should beware of stigmatising any group. Let us learn from our Sidra not to be swayed by the prevailing climate. Let us defend the poor and the stranger and care for them. And let us work for a world where all are treated with compassion and dignity and none are dependent on the gifts of others, but are able to live in peace, security and friendship.

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