Writing on the Margins: Deuteronomy, Social Justice & Twelve 4th Graders

by Josh Yarden

Martin-Buber-Quotes-1A friend recently asked me to teach her fourth grade Sunday School class while she was out of town. They were learning about biblical history, archeology, theories about the authorship of the Torah and how the text evolved. I was impressed that people teach such things to children in elementary school. Her lesson plan for last week included sharing ‘passages from Deuteronomy that reflect a regard for various groups of relatively powerless people in society, human rights and dignity embedded in these passages.' I realized that her request connected to the themes of the essays I published in this column in recent months: “Marginal Lives,” and “Torasophy: A Biblical Humanism,” and I accepted the challenge of introducing a bit of Deuteronomy to today's fourth graders who have the potential to become tomorrow's agents of social change.

She suggested chapter 15, verses 7-11, so I took a look at the text and a few translations. As I was comparing and contrasting, I found myself reading the Hebrew text aloud and formulating my interpretation. I was wondering how far I might stray from authoritative translations, when I remembered the words Everett Fox quoted at the opening of the introduction to his translation and commentary, The Five Books of Moses. The following is adapted from a 1926 lecture by Martin Buber.

As I tried to imagine Buber speaking these words, I heard something rather poetic, and so I copied them this way:

Read the Bible

as though it were something entirely unfamiliar

as though it had not been set before you ready-made

Face the book

with a new attitude

as something new

Let whatever may happen occur between yourself and it

You do not know which of its sayings and images

will overwhelm and mold you

Hold yourself open

do not believe anything a priori

do not disbelieve anything a priori

Read aloud the words

hear the word you utter

and let it reach you

These words could almost be a speech in the Book of Deuteronomy, given by Moses to the People of Israel. I wonder if Buber thought so too. I'm no Martin Buber, but I set out to follow his advice in preparing to teach the text. I listened as I read the words I uttered, and I tried to let them reach me. I was surprised to see how much they did. I read it over and over, and a sort of poem emerged from the text. This is how I decided to adapt and interpret Deuteronomy 15:7-11:

If there is a person in need in your midst

one of your family

within your city

in your land

given to you

by your eternal

vision of light


do not harden your heart

Open up your hand for your sibling

lend the missing person enough

of what that person is missing

Take care

not to calculate your losses

that would be eternally


give generously

not with a heavy heart

on the other's account

be eternally blessed

in all that you set your hand to

If poverty is not stricken from the land

it is an urgent obligation to open up your hand

to your family, your needful, your destitute in your land

We talked about how the text teaches us to see anyone in need as a family member, even if that person is not actually a sibling from the same parents, but someone from our city or in our country. We talked a little bit about how we got our land, and what it means that it is ours. The children made interesting connections to the text. One of them pointed out that in Native American traditions, people do not own the land they live on. We talked about the idea of the creator of the universe, and how we are not quite sure what that means. I decided not to devote time to explaining why I wrote the letters ‘yhoh,' but I said that sometimes when we are talking about what some people call ‘Elohim' or ‘God' or other things, we just use the letters without trying to spell out what they mean.

We talked about what it is to be in need, to be afraid, and how difficult it can be to ask for help. One child shared this story: He had seen a movie when he was very little and went to bed quite scared, but he did not tell anyone that he was afraid. He told about being very alone in his fear, and I said that maybe we have to ask people if they need help because sometimes they are afraid to ask. I know that there have been times when I was scared, and afraid to share my fears aloud. I suspect that may be a nearly universal experience unknowingly shared by silent humans everywhere.

We talked about ways of being generous and giving to people. One of the children pointed out that beggars may not even need the money. They may be crooks. I agreed that we cannot simply go around giving money to everyone we see, and some people may be dangerous, but I also suggested that criminals probably don't make their money by sitting out in the cold asking people for loose change. Then I shared a few brief stories about homeless people I have met on the streets of Philadelphia, people who want to rise above poverty.

I told them about people who sell the One Step Away newspaper. They buy it for a quarter and sell it for a dollar. Then they can buy three more and earn another two dollars and twenty five cents. A few more papers and they have a meal. A few more and perhaps some nice clothes to wear while they are selling newspapers on the street. After a few weeks they may be able to earn money to pay the rent. One of the people I met is a former Marine and electrical engineer who can not find work, but he is not giving up. One is a musician. I bought his CD, and I like his music. Three are brothers who are slowly putting together the funds they need to start their own small business. I find that inspiring. You can pass by, ignoring or merely noticing a vendor here and a vendor there, or you can stop for a moment and meet the person you may have passed countless times. Each one of these individuals has a compelling story. I wonder if they are one step away from success or failure, in spite of their best efforts.

Left Behind

I do not anticipate an apocalypse or a rapture; we already live in a society where some people have ‘made it' while others are ‘left behind.' I do feel that it is “an urgent obligation to open up my hand,” not only because people should not have to go hungry, and not only because I was taught to share, but also because I cannot imagine that this system is really sustainable. It is working increasingly well for an increasingly small sector of society.

From time to time I give away loose change, dollar bills, contribute to food pantries, serve meals or make deliveries, and I bring my children along for the learning and the giving, but that's just a drop in the bucket… no, a drop in the ocean of poverty. What can those of us who are not wealthy, not in control of industry or public policy do to effect change? It is so easy to give up trying and avoid the possibility of failing to bring about the necessary changes.

I was reminded of another poem, this one by Václav Havel, the Czech writer and social activist who became a leader of the “Velvet Revolution.” He went from being a dissident to becoming the president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. He wrote:


It is I who must begin.

Once I begin, once I try—

here and now,

right where I am,

not excusing myself

by saying things

would be easier elsewhere,

without grand speeches and

ostentatious gestures,

but all the more persistently

— to live in harmony

with the “voice of Being,” as I

understand it within myself

— as soon as I begin that,

I suddenly discover,

to my surprise, that

I am neither the only one,

nor the first,

nor the most important one

to have set out

upon that road.

Whether all is really lost

or not depends entirely on

whether or not I am lost.

I do not live in a crumbling dictatorship, but I am afraid that I may be living in a republic that is crumbling in other ways. Philadelphia, like other major cities in this country, is among the intellectual and economic engines of the world, but it can barely keep its public schools open, let alone ensure that they will be places where children can flourish. Perhaps our task is more difficult than bringing down a corrupt dictatorship. We have to bring up our standards—not merely standardized test scores, but our standards of human dignity, and we cannot afford to lose anyone along the way. So what can I do? I'm no Václav Havel, but it is I who must begin.

Perhaps the most human of all acts

is the way we tell our stories

it is dehumanizing when people do not care

most humanizing when we care for each other

Moses, Buber, Havel

the people on the streets

the children in class

storytellers all

We must all face our stories

the ones of our family

within our city and in our land

with a new attitude

We should not believe or disbelieve anything

simply because we are told to do so

We must tell and listen to each other's stories

hear the words we utter and let them reach us

It is I who must begin

here and now

right where I am

not excusing myself

Writing on the Margins

working on our stories together

writing futures we deserve

placing possibilities in motion