Parashat Behar: Positive Discrimination
It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home. -Carl Rowan
Judaism is tribal. Its prime concern is for members of the tribe. Its laws, restrictions, concerns and benefits almost exclusively deal with Jews. Throughout history, Jews, the Torah and the Talmud have been accused of unfair discrimination and racism. Many Rabbis and commentators have explained the rationale for the preferential treatment by Jews of other Jews above gentiles. One explanation is that it is more of a spectrum of responsibilities.
Jewish law codifies that one’s responsibility is first and foremost for oneself. “If I’m not for me, who will be?” is the famous dictum from the Mishna of Pirkei Avot, followed immediately by the phrase “if I am just for myself, what am I?” My father would often explain: “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of anybody else?”
The next circles of responsibility are for one’s immediate family, followed progressively by other family, friends, neighbors, community, the Jewish people, and then the rest of the world. One cannot and should not have the same measure of responsibility for every single person on the planet. However, within this hierarchy the Torah repeatedly stresses certain individuals for whom we should take additional responsibility, for whom we should have extra concern. Those are “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” the more disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community.
Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:50 (Behar) adds a nuance from the Talmud which demonstrates a type of reverse discrimination. He states that while it is an abominable sin to steal from a fellow Jew, it is actually even worse to steal from a non-Jew.
He explains that stealing from a non-Jew is not just criminal but actually what is called in Hebrew a “Chilul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, one of the worst offences possible. The perpetrator of a “Chilul Hashem” is in a sense “embarrassing” God, and God will want to have nothing to do with such a person.
One of the primary missions of a Jew is to be a beacon of light to the world. When we betray that mission by demonstrating to the non-Jew that we feel comfortable stealing from them, it is a catastrophic failure of our mission on Earth, which in a sense negates our very purpose of being.
May we always be careful and honest in our dealings and even more so with those outside the tribe.
To our very distant cousins, the Samaritans, on their fascinating reenactment of the Pesach sacrifice.