In the age when we can measure everything, cities try to measure their success through tangible things, like “miles of roads paved” or the “amount of rented office space” as a way of thinking about how well they are doing. These are important numbers, especially in my car-centered city of Los Angeles that boasts over 6,500 miles of roadway. Our vision of ourselves though, must both be physical and psychological – both material and spiritual. Where this goes wrong is when we think of our city only in terms of numbers and instead of people. Let me give you an example.
There are words we use to describe what cities and communities often think of as problems or issues. The phrases “the hungry,” “the poor,” and “the homeless” all are meant to measure how a city is “dealing” with its own vulnerable populations. Except there is no such thing as “the hungry,” “the poor,” and “the homeless.” These words are euphemisms used most often by those in power to describe those who are powerless, so that policies can be devised hopefully to help them. Except what happens often is that the identity of someone experiencing poverty becomes known only as the “poor person” or the person experiencing food insecurity becomes known as the “hungry” and a person experiencing a time in their lives without shelter is simply known as the “homeless guy.”
This might not seem like a big deal to many, but history has shown that we essentialize experiences into full-blown identities; helping the very people who are harmed becomes more difficult and more expensive and can also lead to discrimination. When you describe a person simply as a “felon” or a “drunk” you cover over the breadth of their story. A few years ago, social psychologists came to understand that if we wish to put the human element back into our own societal vision, we must use what is called “person-first language.” The idea is that we should place people at the center of their own experiences, abilities, and diagnosis. While not all communities agree, it is generally understood that a person-first approach helps to overcome the trauma, stigma, and shame of oppression.
Recently, over two hundred people were removed from the Venice Beach encampment. Through the remarkable partnerships of LAPD, social services and private business, and the leadership of the City Council, the boardwalk is now mostly clear. But these numbers are not simply “the homeless”; they are people with real lives. Like Michael, nineteen years old, who ended up on Venice Beach after experiencing homelessness for six years. Meaning that Michael was thirteen when he spent his first night outside in the city. It wasn’t until a social worker showed him a future that he even thought he had one. That’s because he had been seen as a modicum of data, and not a person who has been experiencing homelessness since he was a child. Now with the help of a team, he has his first shot at life renewed. He even said, “hope to get a job. Have a family. Make a living.”
Thousands of years before this discovery, Moses already understood that a person-first society is one that is moral, just, and godly. In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, found in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses addresses the new generation of Israelites and sets out a social vision for the nation that seeks to place human experience at the very center of lawmaking. “There shall be no needy among you since YHVH your God will bless the land that YHVH-your God gives you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) Just seven verses later, he continues, “If, however, there is a person in need among you from one of your kinsmen or in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” (Deuteronomy 15:7) And finally, just another four on Moses writes, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
In this three-verse litany, the Torah appears to bring us through a moral whiplash. In the first verse, Moses appears to be teaching a utopian ideal -“There will be no needy.” In the last, he seems to paint a more dystopian future – “There will never cease to be needy.” How can this be? Many commentators have addressed the confusing moral vision, most famously the early midrash that says rather than seeing these verses as presenting a conflicting moral vision, they instead provide a path towards righteousness. That is, if you follow God’s commandments, you build a society that eradicates poverty. (Sifre Devarim 114:1) Which leads me to the question, which commandments?
Moral pronouncements are wonderful, and rituals are an amazing way to connect with the universe and ourselves, but to me, to complete the vision of a moral and godly society, we don’t have to wander far. Let us return to the middle verse in our parsha. The same word for the impoverished, evyon, is used in all three verses, but in the middle verse the focus of social policy is not on the system of justice, but on the relationships and personhood of the person experiencing poverty. “If a person is in need from your kinsmen.” At the center of the three-verse vision sits a human being whois part of your community in great pain and we are commanded to “not harden our hearts.” The Torah teaches us that the spiritual dimension of how we relate to each other is as important as the outcome. It’s not just what you give, but that you are willing to give for the right reasons.
Jewish law has always believed that people matter more than data, and the eradication, mentioned over and over again in the Torah, is a major commandment as important as Shabbat, kashrut, and other rituals. What’s most important is that Judaism provides an unsurpassed social vision that is person-first and heart-centered. Something for all of us to emulate in our data rich, heart-poor world today.