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D’var Torah: Talmud rabbi has lesson for Wisconsin
July 1st, 2011
One day while [Honi was] walking on the road, he noticed a man planting a carob tree. Said Honi to the man: “You know that it takes 70 years before a carob tree bears fruit. Are you so sure that you will live 70 years and eat from it?” “I found this world filled with carob trees,” the man replied. “As my ancestors planted them for me, so do I plant them for my progeny.”
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a
Honi the Circle-Maker, a rabbi of our tradition who lived in Judea in the first century BCE, had great foresight and was a champion of the people.
He taught us the lesson about the carob tree: One must plant well in one generation so that the next generation will benefit from a good harvest (Talmud Tractate Ta’anit 23a).
I have been thinking lately about the story of Honi and its message in connection to the events in the state of Wisconsin in the last six to eight months. Specifically, I consider the manner in which our state has gone about introducing, processing, debating, and passing new budget legislation.
In the past, citizens and their elected representatives have raised questions and sought answers in an open, transparent, courteous, thoughtful, and — for the most part — civil manner.
So I wonder: Why have things changed? How have our recent confrontational and hurried-through politics affected the dynamic that exists between the people and the three branches of their government?
I also consider the substance of the new laws that our legislators and governor have passed. And I wonder: If we implement these new ideas — ideas that seem to break fundamentally with past traditions of caring about our neighbor — what will the quality of life be like for future generations in Wisconsin? And how long will we have to live with the consequences of these proposals?
On the issue of civility and tone, I observed these examples over the last six months:
• Candidates for elected office concealed many of their true governmental agendas.
• The new administration of Gov. Scott Walker quickly sought to centralize certain rule-making powers in the executive branch.
• Senate and Assembly leaders hurried legislation through, actions recently declared in violation of our state’s open meetings law.
• State legislators used legal but questionable tactics to slow down or subvert the legislative process.
• And in April, when a group of 30 interfaith clergy met with assistants to the governor to voice our concerns (I was among them), it seemed to us that they met us only as a courtesy.
They refused to understand the needs of lower income Wisconsinites and those most vulnerable, that is, those who would be directly affected by the cuts to services.
I look at all of this, and more, and wonder: Is this the paradigm of civic behavior that we really want to transmit to our children? Do we want our descendants to remember — and believe to be the norm — the image of politicians who routinely play political games with the lives of real people?
I believe that we have not acted in the best tradition of the state of Wisconsin. To my friends in the human services field, these budget proposals represent a condescending disregard toward those who are on the margins of society.
And what is more difficult: We have lessened the tax burden on those more able to pay. Those who can pay more — and who are generally willing to do so — now have fewer obligations.
This combination of fewer taxes on the rich, and more taxes on the poor and working poor, represent a reversal of how things ought to be.
From our faith tradition’s point of view, those on the margins of society are precisely the people whom we are to keep at the forefront of our consciousness. The Torah tells us 37 times to care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger.
Our tradition also tells us that, as mere sojourners on this planet, we have a special responsibility to serve as God’s stewards of the earth and its creatures, to care for those in need.
That’s why Honi the Circle-Maker reminds us that one must prepare carefully in one generation for those in the next. I hope that we, in this generation of Wisconsinites, will be able to plant well for the next.
These human values are the ones we received from our ancestors who planted them in our tradition many years ago, and which we carry forth today.
And we should do this not only because we are Jews — and this is what Jews do — but also because we are Wisconsinites concerned with passing on to future generations the tradition of civility and care for those in need.
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch serves Temple Beth El in Madison.