According to author Ruby K. Payne, there is a difference between what she labels “situational poverty” and “generational poverty.” In her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she explains that situational poverty is the result of a specific incident within the lifetime of the person in poverty, and generational poverty is a cycle that passes from generation to generation.
The problem with generational poverty is that cycles that perpetuate and feed on themselves are inherently harder to break. It’s one thing when an outside force is impacting a situation; if that force or cause can be removed, the problem has the potential to be fixed. It’s another thing when, like in the cases of poverty or lack of access to resources and education, it’s the problem that is both the cause and the result.
This week we read a double Torah portion, Behar-Behokotai. These two portions of Torah make up the final chapters of the book of Leviticus. Parshat Behar focuses on letting the land rest. We learn about the return of land during the 50th year and the cycle of workers and loans. In parshat Behukotai we read about the blessings that God will bestow upon the Israelites in exchange for following the laws of the Torah, and the rebuke and curses that will come if they don’t. Tied up in both of these narratives is the idea of security – financial and physical.
Chapter 26, verse 5 states, “Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” This is the pact that God makes with the Israelites: adherence to a set of ethical laws for homeland security and sustenance. These two needs of sustenance and security go hand in hand. “When will people be able to live securely?” asks the Torah. When there is enough food for everyone so that no one is driven to crime or violence for lack of food. Security and food are intimately connected. Sustenance is a blessing that can determine how safe we feel in our own society.
The two Torah portions this week remind us that there is a clear advantage in the security we feel when our cycle is a positive one, and that a negative cycle does considerable damage beyond just those immediately affected. I would encourage us all to take just a minute to imagine interrupting a negative cycle somewhere – what would it take and what could be the outcome?