The Torah and Poor People
The Rev. William Barber (left) and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People's Campaign, lead a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 13, 2021. (Photo/RNS-Jack Jenkins)
It is always moving when the Torah portion of the week contains a vivid parallel to events in our lives, as if the Torah were speaking directly to us.
On June 18, when we read Parashat Beha’alotcha, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is sponsoring an event called the “Moral March on Washington and to the Polls,” to uplift the lives of poor and low-wage people in our country.
The Poor People’s Campaign, co-chaired by the Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis, takes its inspiration from the Rev. Martin Luther King, who proposed a Poor People’s Campaign in 1967. Seeking a “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other,” King planned for an initial group of 2,000 poor people to descend on Washington, D.C. … to meet with government officials to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children designed to improve their self-image and self-esteem.
Nearly 50 years later, in 2013, Barber, a master orator like King, built the Moral Movement, beginning with weekly Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina General Assembly. In 2018, Barber helped relaunch the Poor People’s Campaign, calling for a moral agenda and a moral budget to address the five interlocking injustices of 1, systemic racism: 2, systemic poverty; 3, the war economy and militarism; 4, ecological devastation and denial of health care; and 5, the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism.
As you read this, a massive group of poor and low-wage Americans and their allies are gathering in Washington. They are demonstrating that budgets and political policies are moral documents, and that the many impediments to full equality for the poor in America are immoral. Many of them, I suspect, are religious people, and many are nurtured by the Torah’s principles of equality for all.
We can open the Torah to this week’s parashah and find ancient sources for their beliefs. In connection with the laws of Pesach Sheini (Second Passover — a second chance to offer the Passover sacrifice for those who were prevented from bringing it at the appointed time), the Torah declares, “There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.” (Numbers 9:14)
This is a matter of ritual law. One would have expected that this would have been a law just for Israelites, not open to everyone living in the land. But no, the “ger,” the resident alien, was to be invited to observe the ritual.
Similarly, in the laws of the original Passover sacrifice, (male) noncitizens are also explicitly welcomed to join in the Israelite ritual, as long as they are circumcised. “If a stranger who dwells with you would offer the passover to God, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” (Exodus 12:48-49)
Any male who demonstrates his desire to join with the Israelite community by undergoing circumcision is welcome to join. (Oh, for such clear criteria for citizenship for immigrants to our own country.)
Similarly, and surprisingly, the laws on bringing regular sacrifices (obviously an aspect of Israelite ritual) explicitly include the resident stranger/the immigrant. “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before God; the same ritual and the same law shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.” (Numbers 15:15)
So too in civil law: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, Adonai, am your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-4)
The “stranger” is subject to the same laws as Israelites, and Israelites are required to treat non-Israelites with the same respect and decency that is owed to all members of the society. Most strikingly, the law says not only that we must refrain from wronging them. We must love them as ourselves, because we know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.
Honestly, sometimes I find the familiar refrain “There shall be one law for you” for all members of society heart-breaking. I contemplate the treatment of the “stranger,” the other, those on the margins of U.S. society, and ache for the chasm between the aspirational rules of the Torah and the reality in which we live. But today, I feel uplifted by these laws. As poor people march in Washington, demanding equal treatment, equal opportunity and equal respect in American society, I sense the Torah law of “one law for all” coming to life again. May it spur our society to create a reality that is true to the texts so many of us hold as sacred.
This post first appeared on June 17th at JWeekly, https://jweekly.com/2022/06/17/what-the-torah-has-to-say-about-the-poor-peoples-campaign-march-this-shabbat/