Posted on May 11, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. He didn’t succeed in eradicating it. He didn’t win the war. But his clarion call did lead to a noble effort. Congress responded by passing the Economic Opportunity Act, which spawned 40 programs to alleviate the plight of the poor by expanding government funding for education, health care, housing, and job creation. Some of those programs still exist and continue to provide pathways out of poverty; most notably, Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and the Job Corps.
Some dismissed Johnson’s dream of a Great Society as pie in the sky. Others applauded his leadership as bold and visionary — a great expression of the can-do American spirit that dreams big and takes on great challenges.
I see in Johnson’s war on poverty an echo of the Torah’s vision for a just society as articulated in the first part of this week’s double parashah, Behar-Bechukotai, which is centered around the radical concepts of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee.
Every seventh year the land was to rest, to lie fallow, in order to restore its vitality and fertility. It was a year of renewal, of living in harmony with the earth, and appreciating the gifts of God.
The Jubilee, or 50th year — the year after seven cycles of seven years — was an even more revolutionary practice. In the Jubilee, all land that had been bought or sold during the previous 49 years was restored to its original owner. The net effect was that no one could become rich or poor.
The intent of these laws is made explicit In Deuteronomy 15:4, “There shall be no poor among you,” because God will bless you with abundance sufficient to provide for all.
But, like LBJ’s War on Poverty, the Torah’s prescriptions were a valiant effort that failed to achieve its purpose. Having declared that “there shall be no poor among you,” seven verses later (Dt. 15:11), the Torah concedes that “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….”
Right there in the Torah we see a yawning gap between the vision and the reality of life. Try as we may, our utopian hopes and dreams will fail to come to fruition. Of what value, then, is the vision if it remains forever beyond our grasp?
The Torah’s answer is that the vision guides our path and defines our way of life. We may not be able to perfect this world, but we can make it better. We may not be able to eradicate poverty, but as President Johnson proved, we can reduce it and alleviate its ills.
The Talmud teaches that every person is a world unto themself so that when we save or improve a single life we have saved or improved an entire world. To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, our inability to complete the task doesn’t mean we should refrain from doing what we can to repair the world, because we can make a difference.
Our country and our world need people to dream big dreams, to strive to do great things. We may not be able to eliminate suffering, but our efforts will be precious, and we will make progress toward our vision of a world redeemed.