Resources & Media

Torah offers economics lesson

The Tennessean
December 21, 2012
Rabbi Kliel Rose

Last week, Jews across the globe read in the Torah how Joseph ascended spectacularly to become second in command of an enormous nation. He was praised as someone who possessed great business acumen and, ultimately, was able to avert a major economic disaster. To put it another way, Joseph managed to stop the impending “fiscal cliff” of his time.

Joseph had the administrative skills needed to protect his nation during the “seven lean years,” so that there would be plenty to eat for all citizens of the great Egyptian empire. As far as we know, there was no hierarchy in terms of who received support; regardless of socioeconomic standing, all persons poor or wealthy were given what they needed to subsist without suffering the grueling consequences of a major famine.

The situation we are living through in this moment in our own nation’s history is not exhaustively comparable to that of Joseph’s time. Nevertheless, we can extract a kernel of wisdom from this ancient narrative and look to our revered ancestor Joseph for guidance in our national predicament. Joseph was a visionary and a great interpreter of dreams. More importantly, he knew how to implement his vision. It required both his foresight and his expertise as a political leader to prevent a national catastrophe for the people he served.

Judaism has long understood that each person has a responsibility to care for fellow citizens who make up the whole of society. In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Baba Bathra 8a), we learn about the tax system required of every resident who was a member of a community: “At thirty days (one is assessed for) the soup-kitchen; at three months, the welfare fund; at six months, the clothing fund; at nine, the burial fund; at twelve, the city’s infrastructure.” The obligation to pay these funds to support the general welfare was an essential component of what it meant to be a resident of the community. This understanding of our commitment to communal life is not contained simply in the early rabbinic period, but it also reappears frequently in other major sources. It is a value that has been woven into the fabric of Jewish history.

Like so many other systems of ethics in our world, our Jewish values compel us to advocate for common-sense tax reform whereby all Americans pay their fair share. Our nation’s leaders must be visionaries and implementers of change, which will ensure the well-being of all members of this nation. Thus, we call on our elected officials to preserve the vital programs and services that ensure the health and welfare of their constituents. We ask that those who have greater means be willing to assume a greater share of the cost of providing for all citizens. We implore our leaders to repair a broken budget and tax system to benefit the common good of our national community.

In the Torah reading, Joseph was admired for trusting his vivid dreams, which our tradition understands as having been directly revealed to him with intense clarity by God. However, what set Joseph apart was his judiciousness in acting on his dreams by implementing a plan that prevented his constituents from agonizing through a dreadful time of scarcity. He thus avoided a crisis that could have ruined this extraordinary kingdom.

None of us can ever truly live up to the standards of mythical or legendary figures. Fortunately, all we must do is strongly encourage those we have elected to act decisively and wisely constructing measures of sustainability so all members of our country can live without fear of falling off the cliff.

I join almost 300 rabbis brought together through Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice in asking Congress, via a joint letter, to allow the temporary tax cuts for our wealthiest 2 percent to expire.

Rabbi Kliel Rose lives in Nashville. He is a proponent of interfaith dialogue and social justice. In recent years, he has worked diligently to combat anti-Muslim bigotry within his community.

Solution Area: