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Rabbi Berel Wein

One of the more popular and populist social and electoral issues here in Israel and in the rest of the Western world as well, is rectifying the seeming inequality of the distribution of wealth. The upper five percent of the population in terms of wealth worldwide control close to eighty percent of the wealth of the societies that they inhabit. In order to correct this seemingly unfair imbalance, government programs are introduced and legislative laws are passed to redistribute wealth – taking from the wealthy by substantially increasing their tax burden and giving to the less wealthy by government subsidies and welfare programs. This is in effect a glorified Robin Hood philosophy that has always proved popular and even heroic. However, in countries and societies where this utopian scheme has actually been tried and enforced, the net result seems to have been that the wealthy became poor and the poor remained poor. The Soviet Union, that for seventy-five years destroyed the pre-existing wealthy class, only succeeded in creating a new class of bureaucrats and apparatchniks and an economy that bred universal poverty, social dysfunction and eventually collapsed under the weight of its own misguided policies. Here in Israel, the socialist founders of the state also addressed the problem of income inequality with enormous taxation and controls over forms of private enterprise. This was the legacy of the Marxist mindset that was part of the belief system of the Eastern European Zionist founders of the state. Only over the last few decades has this situation changed and many more Israelis are prosperous if not even wealthy now than ever before in the history of the country. Nevertheless there is undoubtedly a great gap between the wealthy and the less wealthy. And this gap is trumpeted by all of the parties as being an important electoral issue that will needs determined correction and government action.

The Torah takes a more realistic and measured view of the human situation involved here. We are assured that there will always be a substantial number of people – if not even the vast majority of the population – that will be less wealthy than the rich people of the society. All human beings are created equal but they never are equal in talent, wealth, opportunity and accomplishment. That is simply a fact of human life and society. The Talmud, in its usual pithy and accurate way, teaches us that success in raising children, achieving longevity of life and becoming wealthy in material terms are all dependent upon good fortune. Seemingly perfect parents and warm and loving households can nevertheless produce children that are rebellious and even monstrous. One can follow rigorously the best of health, diet and exercise regimens and still not be guaranteed with achieving a long life of healthy productivity. And one can work hard, be smart and intelligent, have great deal of knowledge and energy and still be a very poor wage earner. Apparently the Talmud takes for granted that income inequality will always be a part of human life. It encourages and demands that the wealthy constantly help the poor but it offers no magic bullet solution that will make everyone equally wealthy.

There exists an imaginary poverty line that is drawn by statisticians in every society. There will always be a substantial portion of the population that finds itself below that poverty line. The issue is how high is that poverty line drawn on the graph of wealth and income. There is no question that the poor in Israel today are much wealthier than the poor in Israel were a half-century ago. Yet we are constantly reminded of how many in Israel find themselves in the group that is below the poverty line. I wish that they were no poor people in Israel pr anywhere else in the world but that is a hopeless wish. Those of us who find ourselves fortunate to have means and wealth are obligated to help our fellow citizens who need our help. But destroying the wealthy class, taxing them inordinately and attempting to redistribute wealth and income, only weakens the society and its economy. We should not remain passive in the face of the economic and social troubles that confront so many of our neighbors here in Israel and throughout the world. However, it is interesting to note that people are more resistant to paying taxes to a government than they are to contributing towards charitable causes and helping other human beings. As with everything in life there must be a balance between private wealth, government welfare, taxation policies and voluntary charitable behavior. Populist slogans rarely if ever contribute to achieving this most necessary balance. Lincoln famously once said: "The Lord must love the poor. He created so many of them". We should attempt to diminish the numbers of the poor but at the same time realize that certain facts in the human condition and in general society are not given to easy and popular theoretical solution.
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