The Ability to Protest

As I contemplate tomorrow’s elections, I keep thinking about a piece of text at the end of the third chapter of Masechet Sukkah, the tractate of Talmud that deals with the holiday of Sukkot. The chapter closes with a listing of bad omens for the Jewish community and an enumeration of the human actions that the rabbis believed caused these negative portents. Part of the text reads:

åáùáéì ã’ ãáøéí ðëñé áòìé áúéí ðîñøéï ìîìëåú
åòì ùäéä ñô÷ áéãí ìîçåú åìà îéç
And because of four things the wealth of the laypeople (literally “the home owners”) will pass into the hands of the government….
[Reason #3 is:] Because of those who have the ability to protest and don’t.”

Rashi interprets reason #3 as a rabbinic statement on social activism. He explains that the phrase “ba’al habatim” (which I’ve translated here as “laypeople,” but which can also mean “those who work for a living” or any number of similar things) refers to those who are wealthy. Because of their affluence, says Rashi, wealthy individuals have the ability to protest against those who commit moral and legal transgressions in society. Others, he continues, will listen to what these people have to say because of their social position. Should the ba’al habatim fail to protest, their wealth will pass into the hands of the government– clearly an ominous outcome in the eyes of the rabbis.
These days, democratic elections are one of the most powerful methods we have to protest against what we view as social transgressions. And is there anyone among us who isn’t wealthy in some way, whether in terms of friends, freedoms, good fortune, money, or the ability to influence at least an immediate circle of family and friends? As Jews who may be wealthy in either conventional or unconventional ways, we need to vote. The Talmud reminds us that if we don’t– if we fail to protest injustice when we hold that power in our hands— our wealth (our freedoms, our dignity) will pass into the hands of others who have the power to oppress us.

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