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Blog - Torah Insights

Not In My Back Yard

Many people have strong opinions on how to solve society's challenges. Many people believe we have to help the homeless, the disenfranchised, and even the ex-convicts; but many people want the problem to be solved elsewhere, or NIMBY.

According to one poster on the urban dictionary website, NIMBY is:

"Used to describe a person or an attitude, NIMBY is an abbreviation for Not In My Back Yard. A NIMBY might agree that a community or a neighborhood needs a half-way house for convicts transitioning back to society, but doesn't want it placed too close to his or her own home or in the neighborhood."

The Torah, however, believes that to heal society’s ills you cannot expect to write a check and have someone else -  your Synagogue, your JCC, your local charity, or the government - to solve the problem in some distant part of the country. Rather, you must roll up your sleeves and ‘get your hands dirty’, only then can you expect to create positive change.

This idea is crystallized in the law of the Torah that is perhaps the most uncomfortable to the modern ear: the law of the Jewish servant. At first glance people wonder how can the Torah, which is supposed to be the epitome of Divine morality, condone servitude? Upon close examination, however, this law contains a deep ethical and moral lesson, a lesson very much applicable for us living in the 21st century.   

The Jewish servant is someone who stole money and is unable to repay. Instead of incarcerating the thief, which does little to rehabilitate the criminal - as the U.S. department of justice writes on it’s website that “In a 15 State study, over two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years” - the Torah puts forth a system of rehabilitation.

The Torah mandates that the criminal serve for six years and the money earned by his work is used to repay the theft to the victim of his crimes. This service, however, should not be performed in some far away prison camp, rather the thief is sent to a home of an upstanding member of the community. That’s because the Torah expects that in the home of the “master” the thief will find, perhaps for the first time in his life, warmth and compassion. We expect the “host family” to treat the servant as a member of the extended family, giving him the dignity of being able to correct his mistake in a warm and loving environment.

Now, let’s think about the host family for a moment. Why would they choose to hire the six year servant, a contract that demands a great deal of the master? To quote Maimonides:

“A master is obligated to treat any Hebrew servant or maid servant as his equal with regard to food, drink, clothing and living quarters, as implied by Deuteronomy 15:16 "for it is good for him with you." The master should not eat bread made from fine flour while the servant eats bread from coarse flour. The master should not drink aged wine while the servant drinks fresh wine. The master should not sleep on cushions while the servant sleeps on straw. Nor should the master live in a walled city while the servant lives in a village, or the master live in a village while the servant lives in a walled city, as implied by Leviticus 25:41: "And he shall leave you." (meaning that when he leaves, he leaves from “you”, from being your equal. M.F.) On this basis, our Sages said: "Whoever purchases a Hebrew servant purchases a master for himself." A master must treat his servant with brotherly love, as implied by Leviticus 25:46: "And with regard to your brothers, the children of Israel".

So with all that said, why would anybody want to purchase a servant?

The answer is that the host family is hiring the six year servant understands that you can't outsource your obligation to help the needy. They understand that the thief needs help to work his way back into society, and they are offering to help. They believe in compassion and kindness. They understand that if you want to help someone, it’s not enough to write a check. You must open up your home. You must invite him or her into your family.

To illustrate the point in the modern context: Steve, my dear friend and study partner, was an officer in the NYPD serving in the Bronx in the seventies. One day he is called to a store where the employees caught someone stealing food. Steve approached the guy and asked why he stole. The guy said that he has three children at home and he needs feed them. Steve went in to speak to Mr. Hurwitz, the store owner. When Mr. Hurwitz heard what the fellow said, not only did he refuse to press charges but he offered the guy a job on the spot.

What’s most amazing about this story is that within three years the guy moved up from stocking the shelves to store manager.

This would not happen by Mr. Hurwitz just wanting to help the lost soul. It happened because Mr. Hurwitz did more then write a check, he opened the door and let him in. He opened the door opened the door and did more then let him into his backyard, he let him into his life.

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