The names in these scenarios have been changed for the sake of the people's privacy.
Martin worked for 30 years for a local electrical company, made a good living, saved some money, was able to buy a house, send his kids to college. When it came time to retire, after a life of hard and honest work, he found his pension had been depleted by the economic crisis and he was forced to find a low-wage, part-time job just so he could stay in his house and afford healthcare. Charles is a 27-year-old school teacher, teaching high school English in a low-income neighborhood of Philadelphia. Not well-versed in the intricacies of finance and mortgage lending, he thought he got a good deal on a home a few years ago, only to find himself completely underwater when the bubble burst and he was just evicted from his home as it was foreclosed on by the bank. He is living in a motel until he can figure out what to do.
Shirley is a very successful banker, having graduated from Harvard with an MBA, and is not working as a senior analyst in a well-known firm. Sitting in church one Sunday morning, she was struck by the sadness in the voices of those who were "testifying," as they do in some churches, about the terrible struggles they were facing, losing homes, children without food, seniors unable to pay for medicine. These were not people she passed by on Skid Row as she went to work, but members of her own community. Never having been very philanthropic in the past, she shocked her pastor when she came in Monday morning and wrote him a 1 million dollar check to help anyone in the community in need.
James has had a drug problem most of his life, starting when his older brother got him hooked at age 11. He has been in and out of jail, has lived on the streets for many years. He has no remaining family and didn't graduate high school. He wants to get his life together but just can't seem to figure out how or where to start. And the list of names and stories could go on and on.
All of these people are Americans, citizens of our great nation, all affected, in one way or another, by the chaos we find ourselves living in as we began the year 2012. As I seek to make sense of what is happening and what a religious voice can add to the conversation, I keep coming back to one of my favorite pieces of liturgy that comes at the very beginning of the morning service, where we say, "Ha'reinee m'kabel alai mitzvat ha'borei, v'ahavta l're'acha kamocha, Behold I am ready to accept upon myself the great deed of our Creator, Love your neighbor as yourself." We say this at the beginning of the service, one of my teachers explains, so that we remind ourselves of why we came to pray in the first place: in order to love one another, in order to care for one another, in order to make ourselves vessels for the great love that God feels for each one of us. And the words here are important. It doesn't say we are to "do" this mitzvah or "perform" this mitzvah, it says that we are ready "to accept," or better, "to receive upon ourselves," this mitzvah. Loving one another is not something that is to be taken lightly, not something that we just do without effort. Sure, we may love our spouse, our children, our family with ease, but this is calling us to love others, our neighbors, literally and figuratively. It is this piece of liturgy that is going to be my mantra for 2012: I am ready to receive God's love and share it with others.
In trying to evaluate the varying directions our country might take in the coming year to heal and rebuild, I am both inspired and disappointed by the Occupy movement and what it has brought to the national conversation. To be sure, it has quickly and significantly altered the conversation we are having about the economy, with the phrases 'occupy' and '99%' now instant lingo for a movement in process, for a set of ideals that are still being formed. I understand that one of the main concerns of those involved is about the fairness of our economic system. The current rules of the game, rules that we as a nation have actively or tacitly accepted, seem skewed to favor the wealthy, the corporations, what the movement has deemed the '1%.' The mortgage lending practices got lots of innocent and well-meaning people into homes that the lenders knew they couldn't afford and who are now facing foreclosure, like Charles the school teacher. The credit card industry, the student loan industry, of which I myself got caught in and am paying the price for, the tax code that favors the uber-wealthy: all are aspects of our economic system that are legal and have legislation to back them. But, does that make them right? Is this the kind of social and moral fabric that we want as a nation? One of the successes of the Occupy movement has been to bring these long-festering questions from the beneath the surface of our country out into the open. The solutions will need to be worked out, and without a leader I don't see the movement able to seriously help in that regard, but these are questions that we need to address together, as a country, and make decisions about how we want to move forward. While I resonated with some of the values being put forth by the Occupy movement, I also know that I don't want to completely dismantle the structure of our government, all of our economic principles or the essential nature of our democracy. I want to fix what has gone awry with our great nation. In seeking to do this, I come back to V'ahavta l're'acha kamocha, are we loving our neighbor as ourself? And yet, we have asked these questions before, in different eras of our history.
"This is America's opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will... One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we've done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power. It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, "That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me." That's the question facing America today. (Dr. King, March 31, 1968)
This is Dr. King in 1968, a prophet and leader who helped us see through the haze and into the light of God. In his day, Martin Luther King called racism the moral stain on society. Today, in light of the crises we face, might we call greed the moral stain on our society? For Judaism doesn't disparage wealth, to the contrary, we celebrate and embrace economic success. However, the Torah reminds, with lessons of wealth distribution, fairness, equity, debt forgiveness and caring for the needy, that with wealth comes responsibility and that greed corrodes the heart. To that end, I believe, like Dr. King, that the religious community has an important role to play in the national conversation of economic policy.
My work as a congregational rabbi has taught me that there are no black and whites, even in this issue of greed and the financial crisis. All poor people are not righteous and all rich people are not greedy; all the people who slept out at the Occupy camps don't necessarily want what is best for our country and all the people who disapprove of the movement don't necessarily not care about poverty, economic inequality and injustice. We have a long road ahead as a nation, to be sure, but I believe that the Torah, 'love your neighbor as yourself,' applies to the occupiers and the bankers, to the poor and the rich, to the hungry and the fed, to the needy and the abundant. However, as Dr. King reminded us long ago, along with Rabbi Heschel, whose 40th yartzheit we observed this past week, there comes a time when hard truths must be brought into the light of day, when policies must change, when morality trumps profit. In this spirit, in honor of the greatness that Dr. King called us to, important and vital questions about our nation's future must be asked, discussed and solutions that benefit all of us must be found. Let us be ready to accept the great mitzvah of loving one another. The light of God demands nothing less of us.