Friday, August 2, 2013

Making Tiqqun Olam a Part of the Conversation (Summer Sermon Series #6) - Re'eh 5773

The Torah teaches us in many places that we are individually and collectively responsible for working toward improving the condition of our world. This concept can be found among the mitzvot / commandments that are identified in Parashat Re’eh, which we read this morning (Deut. 15:4):
אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה, בָּאָרֶץ
There shall be no needy among you, since the Lord your God will bless you in the land...
This promise of plentitude applies only if, as is stated in the following verse (15:5),

רַק אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.
If only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.
Sounds great, right? Except for the fact that God assumes that we will not follow orders, and hence there will always be needy people among us. And furthermore, the Torah requires us to take care of them (15:7-8):

לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן.  כִּי-פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.
Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must surely open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.
Not only will there always be people in need, but we are eternally obligated to take care of them, to help them get back on their feet when they are down. Many of us refer to these verses and others like them as referring to tiqqun olam, repairing the world. The Torah teaches us here and elsewhere that the world will always need repair, and we are obligated at least to try to fix it.

A few years back, Temple Israel had a tiqqun olam consult with one of my colleagues, Rabbi Jill Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization of clergy from across the North American Jewish spectrum that works for protecting human rights. Rabbi Jacobs spoke with us about our ongoing involvement in social action programs. During the course of our discussion, she highlighted a message that has continued to resonate with me - that we should raise the volume of discussion about social action, that tiqqun olam should be considered as an essential plank in the building of community.

Which brings me back to what I am sure you will recognize as one of my favorite topics: community. The whole point of this Summer Sermon Series is to identify the essential values of our community. And as far as I am concerned, the true value of community is exhibited in what we do for one another, in how we take care of each other.

Why do we gather to pray, ladies and gentlemen? Is it merely to fulfill the rabbinically-ordained mitzvah of daily prayer, to discharge our otherwise-meaningless obligations to God? I hope not, although there is a segment of the Jewish world that things so. Is it to improve ourselves through the meditative process of self-consideration? Maybe. Is it to ensure that we rub elbows with the other members of our community from time to time? Perhaps.

More likely, it is to open us up, to sensitize us to the world around us. Jewish custom dictates that a synagogue must have windows, so that we do not get so wrapped up in spiritual expression that we lose sight of the outside world, that we forget that our relationship with God includes the other, the less fortunate, the members of our wider community that are not here with us.

In short, prayer is a call to action. It is to inspire us to feel God’s presence, to inspire us to go out and repair the world. A good tefillah experience will take you outside yourself, will help you see the things that need repair.

And all the more so, that is the whole point of being a community. Temple Israel is not a country club, where you pay dues to gain entry. On the contrary, Jews have formed communal organizations wherever they have lived throughout history so that they could take care of each other. Our people has an excellent track record of communal responsibility; a quick glance at the list of all the various Jewish organizations, the “alephbet soup” of Jewish institutions. I think that we are the only ethnic group that has an umbrella organization of organization leaders: the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, of which our illustrious congregant Jack Stein, alav hashalom, was once the Chairman.

Often, we Jews look inward, and take care of our own. And sometimes we look outward: As the great sage Hillel said in Pirqei Avot (1:14):

אם אין אני לי, מי לי;
וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני;
ואם לא עכשיו, אימתיי.
Im ein ani li mi li?
Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi mah ani?
Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
These three deceptively simple questions speak to the depth of our obligation to look both inward and outward -- the task of tiqqun olam must be done now, and we must spend as much time repairing ourselves as repairing the rest of the world.

I think that if Hillel were to reappear in the 21st century, two millennia after his time on this Earth, he would be shocked at the way we live today. We have unprecedented personal wealth; even America’s working poor might seem quite well off compared to ancient rabbis living in the Middle Eastern agrarian society of the first few centuries of the common era, the period in which the Talmud emerged. We have technology that enables us to eat the same foods year-round, regardless of climate or location; we can travel great distances very quickly; we can communicate immediately with people all over the world. Our economics and technology have enabled to live far more independently than all of the generations that have preceded us. And this is, in many ways, contrary to the way that the rabbis envisioned Judaism.

Today, you do not need to be a part of any community. If you can work and earn enough money to pay your bills, you can live entirely independently. You can move to a place where nobody knows you and be completely anonymous.

But that is not the Jewish way. Jews have always depended on each other. And I am a fierce advocate for the case that Jews need Judaism, and they need their community -- if not for the material support, then at least for the spiritual nourishment. Because if there is one thing that we are sorely lacking in today’s world of great independence, it is guidance for the soul.

When we repair the world, ladies and gentlemen, we find within ourselves the Divine sparks that nourish our souls.

To return to Rabbi Jill Jacobs for a moment, how do we raise our consciousness about tiqqun olam? How do we move forward with our commitment to social action? Her concern, and it is a valid one, is that what happens in many communities is that a few dedicated volunteers take on the responsibility for all of the social action activities of the congregation. And soon enough, these folks get tired and burnt out and resentful that they are doing all the work. And so the goal should be not necessarily to do more, but (and this seems counter-intuitive) rather to talk more about tiqqun olam, to make social action a part of the regular discourse of the community.

But how do we do that? Sure, Rabbi Stecker and I can dedicate a certain fraction of every sermon to tiqqun olam, and benei mitzvah can talk about their “mitzvah project” every week, and so forth. But I do not think that’s enough.

Maybe we need to bring more speakers from different charitable organizations to talk about what they are doing in the world. Maybe we need to host panel discussions about big issues, like hunger or the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa or urban decay. Maybe we need to arrange a congregational mission to Cuba or Uganda or Detroit. Maybe we can dedicate next year’s Tiqqun Leil Shavuot to tiqqun olam.

Or maybe we can connect this with the subject of the third installment in the Summer Sermon Series: Torah. The key, it seems, is learning. The more we learn from our traditional sources (Torah, Talmud, commentaries, halakhic codes and so forth) about our obligations regarding others, the greater chance that we have of increasing our own levels of engagement with tiqqun olam, and the more likely that we will work more effectively as a community to repair the world.

This I know from personal experience: learning leads to action.

I was recently asked about God’s role in today’s world. Does God actively bring about the good and bad things that happen to us? Does God actually (as we state in the second paragraph of the Shema, which we read last week in Parashat Eqev) bring the rains when we follow the mitzvot, and shut off the heavenly water spout when we do not?

Anybody who has ever heard me talk about God knows that I cannot accept this sort of simply-constructed theology at face value. And neither can at least some of the rabbis of the Talmud, given their own observations of who is rewarded and who is punished (Berakhot 7a). Furthermore, I have no satisfying answers to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people, but of course I am in good company with regard to that.

But one thing of which I am sure is as follows: that our God is fundamentally good, and that the proof of this is that God has given us the capability to do good for others. When we read in Bereshit / Genesis that God created us in the Divine image, we can understand this as meaning that God gave us a share in Divine goodness. It is through performing acts of hesed, lovingkindness, that we raise those sparks of Divine holiness, that we illuminate the faces of our friends, family, neighbors, and even complete strangers with the light of God’s own face.

Our very conception of what it means to be a sacred community must therefore include the idea of responsibility for each other, the obligation to, as the Torah puts it, open our hands. Let’s keep mining our holy books for the imperative to raise ourselves up through helping others in need; learning leads to action.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/3/2013.) 

This is the sixth in the Summer Sermon Series, a seven-part exploration of the most essential values of Temple Israel of Great Neck. The previous five installments were:

5. Israel

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