In this week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, we read:
“If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side, do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.
“Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest. I, the Eternal, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God” (Leviticus 25.35-38).
The Torah teaches repeatedly that we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering that goes on around us. This teaching is a powerful reminder of our responsibility to each other as Jews. But what about the wider world in which we live? Do we have any charge to care for non-Jews who also find themselves “in straits,” especially these days, when so many of our neighbors are in dire straits?
There is a passage in the Babylonian Talmud that deals directly with this. In Massechet (tractate) Gittin (divorces) we find the following discussion:
“The Mishna teaches: One does not protest against poor gentiles who come to take gleanings, forgotten sheaves and the produce in the field, which is given to the poor although they are meant exclusively for the Jewish poor, on account of the ways of peace (mipnei dar-khei shalom).”
This means we can’t stand on our exclusivity of Jewish rights, even if the Talmud thinks they are, in fact, legitimate. “For the sake of the ways of peace,” we accept non-Jews taking the produce of the field which is dedicated to the Jewish poor. But the passage goes on to offer something even more remarkable:
“Similarly, the Sages taught in a baraita (Tosefta 5:4): One sustains poor gentiles with poor Jews, and one visits sick gentiles along with sick Jews and on ies dead gentiles along with dead Jews. All this is done on account of the ways of peace(mip-nei dar-khei shalom).”
In commenting on this passage, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) notes in his Hilchot Matanot Ani-yim (“Gifts to the Poor”) 7:7:
“They provide for and clothe the poor of gentiles along with the poor of Israel for the sake of peaceful relations (see Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a and Bava Batra 9a). And if there is a poor person who goes door to door, they are not obligated to give him a large gift, but rather they give him a small gift. It is forbidden to turn away a poor person who asks empty handed, even if you give him a single dry fig, as it is said, (Psalms 74:21) Let not the downtrodden be turned away disappointed; [let the poor and needy praise Your name].”
I have spent more than 30 years in Pittsburgh working with both Jewish and non-Jewish poor and suffering. Over that time, some have questioned my priorities, declaring that my first and sole responsibility is to the Jewish people and its needs. I profoundly disagree. Some have said derisively that I must believe in tikkun olam, the repair of the world, a concept that appears nowhere in Torah or rabbinic text, except as a mystical concept in medieval literature.
I can only answer that this phrase, mipnei dar-khei shalom, does appear in the Talmud and Tosefta, as cited above. As a consequence, I work to ease the plight of Pittsburgh’s hungry and destitute, mipnei dar-khei shalom. I work to foster better relations between Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and others, mipnei dar-khei shalom. I work to combat racism in our region and stand with African American and Latinx leaders, as well as those who work with immigrants who feel alone and under siege, mipnei dar-khei shalom, for the sake of the ways of peace.
This is not, of course, the exclusive Jewish value by which Torah commands us to live. Other Jewish values, like Torah study and prayer, Jewish ritual practice, integrity in relationships, standing with our people in good and bad times, all are essential to leading a fulfilling, Jewish life. PJC
Rabbi James A. Gibson is senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.