Posts Tagged ‘bread and circuses’

Right around 100 CE, the Roman satirical poet Juvenal wrote this critique of Roman society, “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the people have abdicated our duties; for the people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil offices, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” Bread and circuses is a standard metaphor for superficial means of buying political support. The society that operates on feeding the populace a steady diet of “bread and circuses” is hollow, corrupt, devoid of any true concern for the plight of its citizens, most particularly the poorest members.

At almost the exact same moment in time, the great rabbinic sage, Elazar ben Azaryah, gave his own quote concerning bread, now found in Pirkei Avot 3:17, Ein kemach, ein Torah, “If there is no bread, there is no Torah.” If one cannot meet their needs for basic sustenance, then study of Torah cannot occur. Rabbi Yitzchak Arama takes this even a step further when he adds, “Torah and all that it stands for cannot flourish without a sound economic foundation.” Any synagogue board struggling to balance a budget knows this. Without income, the institution cannot fulfill its missions of being a center of prayer, study and community. It is hard to feed the soul on an empty belly.

However, in our focus on the common sense aspect of Rabbi Elazar’s quote, we often overlook his very next words, Ein Torah, ein kemach, “If there is no Torah, there is no bread.” At first glance one says “really?” What is there in Torah that makes it essential to the production of food? Is this truly implying that without Torah one cannot have a sound economic foundation?

All of this brings us to the first part of this week’s double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai. Here we learn a set of commandments that seem arcane to some. Indeed, we do not know how much these instructions were truly, historically observed. I am talking about the command for the sabbatical year (in Hebrew called shmitah). The land is to be given a yearlong rest. Nothing is to be planted or cultivated. One can eat of the natural growth, but the land is to be given a rest, a Shabbat. But there is more. The sabbatical year is discussed in parashat R’ei as well, giving it major Torah “face time.” Additional instructions include the remission of all debts as well as the liberation of all put into indentured servitude – slavery. Contemporary Judaism has read a lot of environmental lessons in the command to give the land a rest. But that does not hue to the original intent of the text. If ancient Israelites followed this at all, it was not for environmental reasons. Crop rotation is certainly practical, but this is a complete letting the land go untended for a year. Remitting debts every 7 years and freeing servants are nice, but do they make any economic sense? We are justified in asking; if they even did these commandments, how could they have benefited the economy? How can any of this “Torah” actually put its followers on a better economic footing as implied by both Pirkei Avot and Rabbi Arama?

Rabbi Arama comments that these commandments remind us of a couple of key elements. First, ultimate ownership does not rest with us. We are only caretakers of the land or whatever property we own for a very brief stretch of time. Second, and I think more poignantly, all of this is meant to give us a better perspective on the accumulation of wealth – that it can never become an end to itself. That is not to say Judaism discourages someone from becoming rich. It emphatically does not. A lot of Talmud, particularly in Baba Metziah assumes a very capitalistic economic system. In Maimonides’ 8 degrees of tzedakah (charity or righteousness), the enabling of someone to become self sufficient, i.e. not dependent on charity or welfare, is the most praiseworthy level. No, Judaism embraces economic success but uses Torah to qualify its limitations and direct how the accumulation of resources should be used – for the benefit of the whole community.

The sabbatical year is a reminder that the material side of life must be balanced by the spiritual – that we have obligations beyond ourselves. The laws regarding debts and slaves are meant to curb our greediest instincts. Finally, we are not to accept a society based solely on the accumulation of wealth. The land given to Abraham is abundant and rich. Our covenant, as proscribed by Torah, wants us to use it to provide for ALL members of the community. Indeed, in Deuteronomy 15, while discussing the sabbatical year, we are told not to allow poverty to exist in our communities.

All of this comes into a sharper focus when considering recent research outlining which communities in the country have the most disparity between the richest and poorest, as well as those whose poorest members have the least path to raising themselves out of poverty(see recent Brookings report and Harvard studies on this).   If we are true to Torah, we understand that the situation of the least among us affects all of us. Wealth built on the backs of the despair of the permanently poor is not healthy for many reasons – beginning with the unrest that occurs when those with the least demand more resources.

But it is not revolution that is the real problem. When the working poor do not have proper health care, their condition affects the productivity of their employers. Those without health coverage raise the costs for everyone as they use the emergency room, the most expensive way to receive treatment, as their health care system. Those in the work force but whose coverage is not adequate, the debts piled up can throw them into bankruptcy. When workers have no shot at a livable wage, they cannot become consumers beyond trying to maintain the bare necessities to live. None of this is healthy for the economy even setting aside the moral and social dilemmas. The American dream is one based on the availability of an upward path out of poverty.

For too many Americans, there is no path. We have not yet broken the cyclical combination of racism, favoritism, cronyism that prevents most from having the opportunity to become successful. Too often we provide “bread and circuses” – just enough to eat and wonderful entertainment – to dull the minds of the populace. Too often we condemn the poor as “lazy” thus deserving of their plight, instead of seeing the despair that exists within the poorest communities. As David Brooks pointed out in a recent editorial for the NY Times, we have not yet come to understand the psycho-social underpinnings of the cycle of poverty.

Torah reminds us that we must keep trying. It begins by adjusting our personal attitudes. The parashah begins by telling us to observe a Shabbat for Adonai. By doing this for the land, we come to understand how all of us exist on a razor’s edge, our success due to part chance and circumstance as well as our hard work. The commands to remit debts and free our servants are to foster awareness, if not empathy for those stuck in a cycle of despair. Ein Torah ein kemach, if there is no Torah there is no bread. The wisdom and demands of Torah for fairness, for caring point us to healthier communities.

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