PARSHAT KEE TAVO
“You shall betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, and you shall not live in it; you shall plant a vineyard and shall not gather its grapes.” (Deuteronomy 28:30)
Much of this portion consists of a long list of curses which threaten the Israelites if they ignore God’s commandments. Traditionally this is read quickly in a low tone of voice, with the hope that if they are not pronounced too loudly, they will not come true. Sadly, most of these curses have come true in Jewish history.
One of the curses speaks of a man betrothing a wife and another man marrying her, building a house and another person living in it, planting a vineyard and another person harvesting the grapes. This portion is a commentary on an earlier section of Deuteronomy, summarizing the laws of war. (See Deuteronomy 20:5 -7.) The order is somewhat different there. A Priest addresses the soldiers and says, if there is someone who has built a house and not lived in it, let him go home from the war, lest he die in battle and someone else live in it. If there is someone who has planted a vineyard and not harvested it, let him go home, lest he die in battle and someone else harvest it. If there is someone who has betrothed a wife and not married her (betrothal and marriage were two separate ceremonies), let him go home, lest he die in battle and someone else marry her.
The Rabbis of the Talmud learn proper behavior from this order (Sotah 44a). A man should first build a home (have a place to live), then plant a vineyard (have a way to eat), and only then get married. (Once again, the Talmud tends to be men talking to men.) Without a place to live, one cannot move forward with the most important decisions of life. The first human need is for one to have a roof over their head, a place of shelter. This brings me to one of the most vexing problems in our country – homelessness.
The issue is difficult in every major city. But I find it particularly jarring when I visit my home city of Los Angeles. Entire tent cities have popped up throughout the city. Last summer my son and I visited Venice Beach, one of the liveliest places to visit in Los Angeles. But to get from our car to the beach, we had to walk through a huge homeless encampment. It was both scary and sad, people forced to live in tents in one of the wealthiest cities in the country.
The problem is, how ought we to deal with the problem? The haftarah we chant Yom Kippur morning speaks of ethical action we are required to take. God does not want our fasting without action to make this a better world. The prophet Isaiah speaks explicitly about the homeless problem. “Take the wretched poor into your home” (Isaiah 58:7). Isaiah’s words are clearly unrealistic. There is a fancy word, supererogatory, for behavior that may be a nice thing to do but go beyond the call of duty.
I claim no expertise on how to solve this difficult problem. I am aware that many (but not all) homeless people suffer from drug addiction or mental problems. I have spoken to a homeless woman who prefers life on the street and refuses to even seek help at a shelter. I will leave it to the experts who work with the homeless every day to seek solutions.
Nonetheless, I have been influenced by the thinking of Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921 – 2002) and his book A Theory of Justice. Rawls imagined what it would be like if we had to design an economic system from behind a veil of ignorance. We would not know in advance if we would be born rich or poor, white or black, male or female, able-bodied or disabled. What kind of society would we design?
Rawls teaches that there is nothing wrong with achieving great wealth, as long as that opportunity was opened to everyone. However, there are certain basic social goods that everybody deserves. We would design a society in which everyone has a roof over the head and enough food to eat. The difficulty is how to implement Rawls’s theory of justice in our own country.