Friday, January 7, 2011

Bo 5771 - A Piece of the (Social) Action

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, January 8, 2011.)

There are two beggars sitting on a busy sidewalk in Mexico City. One is wearing a large cross, and the other a magen david. In front of the Christian beggar is a hat filled with a large pile of money, and in front of the Jew an empty hat. As people walk by, they continue to put more cash into the Christian’s hat.

Finally, a well-meaning stranger approaches the Jewish beggar, and explains, in polite Spanish, that in such a devoutly Catholic place, he might have better luck if he weren’t Jewish. So the Jewish beggar turns to his Christian colleague and says, “Nu, Moishe, this guys tryin’ to tell us how to run our business!”

* * *

In today’s parashah, we read the last three plagues, and the Pharaoh’s (temporary) decision to let the Israelites leave Egypt. This is a defining moment in the Torah, in our national story, and one to which we continually refer, not just at Pesah but year ‘round.

When are some of the occasions that we invoke yetzi’at mitzrayim / the Exodus from Egypt?

Pesah (of course)
p. 113 - third paragraph of Shema
p. 114 - shaharit, right before amidah
p. 125 - Festival amidah (You gave us this day in memory of the Exodus)
p. 312 Fri. night kiddush
p. 338 Birkat hamazon (nodeh lekha...)
p. 133 Hallel

These are, in fact, some of our holiest moments. We recall the redemption from Egypt, because we hope that soon we shall be redeemed as well, and this theme pops up all over our liturgy and our rituals. We’re going to talk about another primary Jewish activity that invokes yetzi’at Mitzrayim.

* * * *

This week, I was fortunate to participate, along with a few others who are in this room, in a discussion with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who is the rabbi-in-residence at the Jewish Funds for Justice and the author of a recently-published book about our Jewish obligations regarding social action.

Rabbi Jacobs was not necessarily trying to help us come up with a concrete plan regarding how to focus our energies, but rather an attempt to draw out our own personal stories about social justice and injustice with an eye toward helping to focus the congregational discussion of the matter.

Rabbi Jacobs said that while most congregations have social action committees and plans and programs, the mistake that many organizations make is to focus on the action, rather than the discourse. That is to say that there is always a core of committed people to run programs - a Mitzvah day, a food drive, a coat drive, a fundraising project, and these people often run themselves into the ground trying to save the world, when their work is unappreciated and perhaps even largely unnoticed by vast swaths of the community. But of greater importance is the discussion, the thematic integration within the larger picture.

As if to prove her point, during the course of this discussion, members of Temple Israel’s Chesed Connection were ducking in and out of the room, whispering to each other, exchanging information and supplies, all in preparation for tomorrow’s Campaign Against Hunger, a program that we are running in coordination with the Tikkun Alliance of the North Shore. I know from having spoken with members of the committee, having been copied on some of their emails, and having seen them running around during the past week in a sustained frenzy, trying to get everything lined up for tomorrow, that this program is taking a heavy toll on those committed to seeing it through. Tiqqun olam / repairing the world is hard work.

And for sure, many people will benefit from it - not only the needy people in Hempstead who will be receiving food, coats, and supplies, but also those involved with the giving, and particularly the children who are participating in various ways and seeing the modeled behavior of adults committed to bettering the lives of others who are less fortunate. And Temple Israel will benefit, as this is one way to build our own community, a topic which continually sashays through many of the meetings that I attend as a rabbi.

But - how many members of the TI community will participate in tomorrows activities? We do our best to get the word out through various channels for many of our events, and it is almost always the usual suspects who, kol hakavod to them, show up. (And, let me add that we are all grateful to those who do.)

What Rabbi Jacobs suggested is not that we desist from such programs as the Campaign Against Hunger, but also that we do not necessarily create more such programs. Rather, what she proposed is to widen the discussion - to make social justice awareness a feature of every activity that goes on under this roof. To integrate our stories, our discourse, through all the arms and schools of this community, such that this congregation breathes tiqqun olam, such that we have, as she put it, “a coherent story about social action.”

Many of you know that I grew up in a family that was strongly committed to Judaism and our Conservative synagogue. I attended Hebrew school all the way through high school, was involved with USY and spent several summers at Camp Ramah, the summer camp affiliated with the Conservative movement. I of course knew about tzedaqah. I thought I knew a good deal about the Torah and what was in it.

And yet, I am embarrassed to admit that the discourse of repairing the world was not part of my Judaism for most of my life. Not long after starting cantorial school, about 10 years ago, I was at a shabbaton, a Shabbat retreat for rabbinical and cantorial students, and on Shabbat afternoon I participated in a small-group discussion about tiqqun olam. I was only just beginning to learn critically, the way that students at the Seminary are taught. I asked, is there really a Jewish imperative to take care of others? And the subtext was, maybe that was just an idea cooked up by 20th-century bleeding hearts. Maybe it is not in the Torah at all.

Somehow, all of those years of Jewish education had not adequately relayed one of the essential planks of Judaism - that we are obligated to care for those in need. I had failed to connect the dots regarding whom to take care of, other than myself.

And where does this obligation originate? From what text does it emerge?

Where, indeed, and how is it that I had somehow missed that, after 30 years of commitment to Jewish life?

It is in yetzi’at Mitzrayim, what we read this morning. Well, OK. Not exactly. But it is when you juxtapose some of the verses we read today with others in the Torah. Let me show you:

Exodus 13:6-8 (Etz Hayim, p. 392):

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day where shall be a festival of the Lord. Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory. And you shall explain to your son on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

The commandment to remember actively, as an institution for all time, the Exodus from Egypt, how God brought us out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. And we must teach this to our children: vehigadta levinkha (this is the origin of the word haggadah, the telling, for the book that we use on seder nights).

OK, so do you see on this page the obligation to take care of those in need? Not really? OK. So now let’s take a look at another location. In two weeks, the Children of Israel will receive the Decalogue, the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments. Not in the Exodus version, but the one in Deuteronomy, there is a particular justification for the commandment to observe Shabbat:

Deut. 5:12-15 (pp. 1019-1020):

(Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.) Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Who is the Shabbat intended for, other than yourself? It is a gift to all in your land - your slave (I hope nobody here has slaves; they were kosher in biblical times, but not today), but also the strangers - the non-Israelite workers among us, who were historically landless and therefore by definition poor.

Not convinced yet? In my own bar mitzvah parashah, Qedoshim:

Leviticus 19:33 (p. 700):

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

The justification for treating the poor sojourner with respect is right there in black and white: ki gerim heyyitem be-eretz mitzrayim - for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The Exodus is repeatedly mentioned all over Jewish tradition not only to remind us of our past redemption from Egypt. We also invoke yetzi’at Mitzrayim to remind us that our actions in this world, if they are the right ones, will merit our ultimate redemption in the world to come. And this includes, of course, treating the needy among us with dignity and giving everybody, no matter their background or station in life, a fair shake.

* * * *

And so where do we go from here?

The conversation has only just begun. The Chesed Connection is off to a good start, but we must broaden the discussion, bring in more people, and keep telling stories. In the coming months, I am hoping that the Chesed Connection will spend some time strategizing how to foster that community-wide discussion, how to put tikkun olam on the table, how to tell and hear our stories of repairing the world.

If you want to be a part of that conversation, join us tomorrow starting at 9:30 AM here at Temple Israel to prepare the food that is going to Hempstead, and then from 1:30 - 3:30 at Kennedy Park. And join us on an ongoing basis as we work to bring social justice to the foreground at Temple Israel.

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