April 15, 2022
In this season of Passover, Ramadan, and Easter I wonder if we, as a nation can rise above our focus on just ourselves.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in “Jewish with Feeling”, recognized that compassion for the lives of others was central to many of our world’s religious teachings. “Most world religions hold up a model for compassion. The sacred heart of Jesus is the Christian face of cosmic compassion. The Muslim’s favorite name for Allah is the Merciful, the Compassionate. When Hasidim talk about a tsaddik, a quintessentially righteous person, we’re talking about the same thing, about compassion at work. Hindus and Buddhists talk about karuna, compassion or loving-kindness. The Buddhist figure of the bodhisattva, a being who says, “I will not go into my liberation until the very last sentient being on earth has made it,” is the Buddhist address for cosmic compassion. What we are all aiming for is the realization that all individual souls are but expressions of a single Soul. Doing the inner work necessary to realize that, and translating that realization to action, is what redemption is about.”
Earlier this week Axios published an interactive map that gave us the ability to see, by county, the portion of the population living below the poverty level. Across most of the country, the map showed us that despite the resurging economy more than 10% of the population was still living in poverty. Using this Federal Poverty Standard at least 37 million Americans are impoverished and live below this level.
In a compassionate world, we would remember that this count ignores the reality that we face at the grocery store, the bus stop, and when we pay rent. It counts you as poor if as a single person you earn under $12,880/year or if you are a family of four you have less than $26,500 to meet all of your basic needs. This is an extremely harsh standard considering that, according to the research done by the Economic Policy Institute, in my hometown of Chicago, a family of four would need an annual income of $89,187 (more than 3.5 times that Federal standard)to live modestly. Think of how many people are struggling with incomes between the Federal standard and the real cost of living.
In a compassionate nation, we would see this data as an urgent reminder of work still to be done, of the need to band together to ensure that no one is trapped in poverty in the richest nation in the world.
But that is not how we are. AXIOS captured our national refusal to look at our fellow citizens with compassion. For their editors, the glass is more than half-full and those struggling are left on the outside, ignored. “The big picture: The U.S. economy is emerging from the pandemic with more well-paying jobs for those who want them, less hunger, less poverty, higher wages, less inequality, and more wealth for everyday Americans…”
Rather than be guided by our sense of responsibility for others, we are more comfortable blaming them for their own hurt. Poverty is a failure of the poor and not a systemic problem. Douglas Holtz-Eakin laid out this in a policy paper he wrote in 2016 to guide legislators, “The problem is that too many Americans are not self-sufficient….Work is valued—it is a source of pride and self-esteem, as well as the dividing line between the poor and non-poor. Taxpayer dollars must be accompanied by accountability for outcomes. Federal programs will fail without a social foundation of better parents and stronger marriages.”
If the poor are poor because they just do not work hard enough, live properly enough, and stay sober, then we can ignore them. We can focus our political campaigns on the middle class and leave the poor unseen. We can cripple our governments’ ability to act. We can ignore the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor and ignore the power of the very rich to shape public policy in their own interests. We can forget we are not compassionate people.
Or we can remember that we do have a responsibility for more than our own welfare. We can listen to the words of Bishop William Barber speaking recently in front of the New York Stock Exchange. “Rather our politics are trapped in the lies of scarcity and the lies of scarcity to keep alive the lies of trickle-down economics and the lies of neoliberalism, which leave people out. The false narrative of Christian nationalism and racism and militarism and climate devastation…You’ve got a mess. These kinds of politics turn us against each other, blame the poor for their poverty even though we live in the midst of abundance. And we know that poverty is not so much a personal choice as a political consequence of policies. We have the resources to meet the needs of everybody. The only thing we don’t have enough of is moral consciousness and the will to do what’s right. And that’s our job – to shift the moral narrative of this nation…”
In this season when different faith traditions celebrate important milestones, we can remember a teaching of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Linsk that has been a part of my family’s Passover seder for many years. “Maimonides in the laws of Passover rules that even the poorest of the poor must eat matzah and drink four cups of wine at the Seder. Yet in another place, Maimonides rules that theft, cheating and swindling are all forbidden by Torah law, and cannot be condoned under any circumstances. We are now faced by a question: What should a poor person do who simply cannot afford to buy matzah honestly and who is forbidden to do so dishonestly? The greatest scholars cannot reconcile the contradiction between the two laws brought by Maimonides, but the wealthy people of the city can do so! Let the wealthy contribute generously and in this way, the contradiction between the two laws will be automatically reconciled!”
We can make this world kinder and safer by approaching it with compassion and not fear, with a commitment to improving life for all. We can do this if we can remember that however successful we have been, it is not only because of what we have done individually.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?