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Shabbat Parashat R'ei 5772

Parashat Hashavuah: What is Social Justice?

Harav Yosef Carmel

Over the last couple of summers, people have joined together under the slogan: “The nation demands social justice.” Yet, it is still not clear exactly what is included in social justice. The main demand is that there needs to be a more fair distribution of national resources. In other words: give more to those who have been receiving less or lower the tax burden of the middle class. Due to the constant security needs of the country, the question arose: which needs will be given priority, the security needs or the social needs?

In the haftara of Parashat R’ei we read the following plea of the prophet: “Establish yourself through righteousness (tzedaka) and distance yourself from cheating others monetarily (oshek), and you will not need to fear, and devastation will not approach you” (Yeshaya 54:14). What is the tzedaka that the prophet is referring to? In our d’var Torah for Parashat Devarim we explained the crucial element that the prophets demanded of the executive branch of government. We showed that not only must there be order in the country and not only does the judicial system have to be honest, but sensitivity for the needier elements in society has to be a major concern of the government. 

It is wonderful in many ways to hear people shouting at the government to give more and/or to take less. What is troublesome is that there is no discussion of the problems of oshek that stem specifically from the citizens. If one is straight in his financial dealings, then he will not be guilty of oshek. The question of “did you conduct your business in an honest manner?” (Shabbat 31a) should be a pillar of society’s social-ethical-religious standards, as our Rabbis taught us. This is true not only between people but also between the citizen and the government. Not only must the central authority give the citizen what he deserves, but the citizen must make true declarations before the tax authorities. It would be heart-warming if all elements of Israeli society saw tax evasion as a serious social and ethical problem. But it is not just a social problem; it is a religious one as well. And by the way, when people withhold taxes, it requires the government to raise taxes, including those of the middle class. In other words, cheating the government is in effect cheating one’s friend.

If we can succeed in being scrupulous regarding all elements of social righteousness, we will automatically be able to solve the problems of security as well, as the prophet promises.

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