Parashat Kedoshim opens with the command, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, and holy. Followed are mitzvot, positive and negative commandments, that define for us what that path of holiness looks like. Included are many ethical imperatives relating to the way we treat one another in daily life.
Kedoshim recognizes that we live in a broken world. There is social and economic inequality, people who behave dishonestly, and loads of selfishness and spite. Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of this brokenness, we have the capacity to be holy. Indeed, it might be the central religious imperative of the Torah.
Many of the commandments in Kedoshim are as urgent today as they have ever been.
You shall not oppress your fellow
You shall not commit robbery…Leviticus 19:13
These two commandments are juxtaposed in other places in the Torah as well. They are clearly a pair, but have their own distinct meanings. What is the difference between oppression and robbery?
In his Mishnah Torah, Maimonides differentiates them in opposite order. Gezel, robbery, is when a person takes another person’s property by force, whether I take it out of your hand, or enter your property, whether objects or animals. Even if I enter a field and eat the produce. This is all considered to be gezel – robbery.
Oshek, oppression, occurs when a person has something belonging to another person already in their possession, with the owner’s knowledge and consent, but then refuses to return it when called upon to do so. Maimonides gives examples such as a loan or wages. The rightful owner is unable to claim the property back because the possessor is dangerous or stubborn. Oppression, therefore, is when I already have in my possession something that belongs to someone else, but I refuse to return it.
A Talmudic Sage, Rav Chisda, illustrates oshek in the following way: I borrow money from you, and you knock on my door to collect it. I say, “Go away and come back tomorrow.” So you come back tomorrow, and again I say, “Go away and come back later.” (BT Bava Metzia 111a)
Not only have I refused to give you what is rightfully yours. I have also wasted your time and added to your frustration.
A story is told in Midrash Mekhilta (Mishpatim 18) about two Rabbis who are captured by the Romans during the Hadriatic persecutions.
As they are being taken to their execution, Rabbi Shimon turns to Rabbi Yishmael and says: “Rebbi, my heart is faint, for I do not know why I am going to be killed.”
He is looking for theological meaning for his death. He must have done something, he assumes. There must be some sin on his soul to explain his suffering and approaching death.
So Rabbi Yishmael asks him: “Did anyone ever come to you for judgment or a ruling and you kept them waiting while you finished your drink or put on your shoes, or got dressed? The Torah says “If afflict you afflict” (Ex. 22:22). It does not matter whether it is greater or lesser.
Realizing that, indeed, there have been times when he made those who came for counsel wait for him to fulfill his own needs, Rabbi Shimon is satisfied. “You have consoled me, Rebbi,” he replies to his teacher, as he continues on to his death.
This might not be a satisfactory explanation for you or I, but Rabbi Shimon is on a different level. This midrash understands oppression in terms of time. Valuing one’s own time more than another’s, withholding a service that another person is counting on, is considered a form of oppression.
Nechama Leibovitz shares an anecdote of when, in the 1930’s, the renowned labor leader Berl Katzenelson admonished officials from the Histadrut (the Labor Union), the Kupat Holim (the Health Service), and civil servants generally, for the malpractice of withholding service during official office hours. Apparently, there was a widespread practice of putting up “will be back soon” signs while the employees sat around drinking tea. This was disrespectful of the public’s time, a form of oppression, withholding services from people who needed them.
A passage in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, laments that the victims of oppression are usually alone and powerless.
I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.Ecclesiastes 4:1
In his typical fatalistic way, the author does not condemn the oppressors, nor does he encourage his readers to act to lift up the oppressed. He is simply describing the way of the world. Thus it has always been, and thus it will continue to be.
The late eighteenth century Rabbi and early Enlightenment scholar, Naftali Hertz Weisel, connects the oppression described by Ecclesiastes to the commandment not to oppress one’s fellow. “Oppression,” he says,
is exercised by the strong against the weak, as in [and here he quotes the passage from Ecclesiastes,] “I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.” This is the meaning of oppression throughout Scripture…
Let’s try to bring these ideas into the present. A mitzvah contained in the holiness code prohibits us from holding on to money or possessions that belong to another person. The Torah describes this as oshek, oppression. The Rabbis take this very seriously, and extend the mitzvah to include not only things, but time as well. I am not allowed to make someone wait who is counting on me. Recognized since ancient times, the victims of this kind of oppression are almost always the poor and the powerless.
In the complex society and global economy in which we live today, navigating ‘the system’ is so much harder for some people than for others. Access to the resources which, in the modern era, are considered to be fundamental human rights, is not the same for everyone. This is true whether we are talking about a person’s ability to receive quality health care, reproductive services, or education; to obtain healthy food, breath clean air, and drink safe water.
לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ – “Do not oppress your fellow,” calls upon me to ask myself, what is in my possession, literally and figuratively, that ought to be available to my neighbor as well, regardless of wealth or status?