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AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Ha’azinu

The Torah’s five books end with one last passionate plea from the Israelites’ leader. As Moses concludes his instructions to the people, preparing them to enter the Land of Israel, he emphasizes that they must “teach the words with which I charge you upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching. For this is not a trivial thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure…” Moses begs his people to raise their children according to the same values and laws to which they themselves are dedicated.

Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, a 19th-century Galician scholar, explains that one who raises a child in Torah never dies. He adds that “a person lives eternally through Torah.” The values upon which we raise our progeny are the means through which we gain eternal life. Our individual acts are only temporary; our presence on earth gains eternality when we raise the next generation to follow our lead.

As we near the completion of our Torah reading cycle, those of us dedicated to global justice would do well to take Rabbi Kluger’s message to heart and reflect on how we are transmitting the Torah of social justice to the next generation. It is not enough to bring justice to this world; we must also continue to educate ourselves and our children in the ways of this Torah and its messages of peace, equality and the ideal of a righteous society.

Yet when I look at the Jewish communal landscape to see how we’re transmitting this message to our children, I am often disappointed. So many synagogues and schools talk about tikkun olam, yet its main physical expression is a single communal “mitzvah day” or other lone justice-related event. Let’s be clear: each act of justice is a good thing that should be encouraged and celebrated. But if we are to live eternally through Torah, if we are to engrain this teaching and these ideals wholly into our lives and the lives of our children, then we cannot devote but one day to the act and then close up shop.

We must also remember to educate. Even communities that do have regular social justice programming often limit it to action and leave out thought. They may have a regular shift at the local soup kitchen but rarely educate volunteers about broader issues of hunger in the community or explore why this act of service is such an integral part of living a life based on Torah. For social justice to become part of the Jewish fabric of the next generation, it must be a regular act and it must be integrated into and reinforced through education.

We would be well-served to think seriously in this new year about the ways in which we educate ourselves and our children toward dedication to the pursuit of justice, and then offer holistic opportunities to put that learning into practice in communal life. For example, how many of our synagogues focus parts of their religious school curricula on Jewish ethics and tzedek, in addition to the study of Jewish holidays and prayer? What opportunities for adult learning exist in the area of justice? AJWS, as well as many other worthy organizations, offers a plethora of educational resources on issues of justice as seen through a Jewish lens, ranging from single-topic programs to entire multi-session curricula.3 Let us dedicate this new year to evaluating this gap in our pedagogy and filling it with more learning.

By strengthening our justice education, we commit ourselves and our children to applying the Torah’s vision of a more just society to our lives and to the world. We ensure that these ideals will thrive in the next generation and continue to grow from the foundation that we have already built.

The Torah concludes with Moses’s death on the precipice of the entrance to the Land of Israel. He never makes it to the Promised Land. We, too, may never fully realize our dreams of a world full of justice. But even if we do not make it into the sweet land that we seek, the next generation still may. They can—if we empower them fully with the education to support their endeavors to build a more just society. The importance of this education cannot be under-emphasized.

After all, as Moses reminds us, this is not a trivial thing.

This is our very life.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

If you’ve ever taken the time to glance at the streets around Shearith Israel as you leave the building, you’ve noticed just how stunning they are. On these warm late-summer days, I relish the 15 minute walk I have each Shabbat as I head home.

I walk past the magnolias and manicured lawns, pink Roman columns and royal iron gates, and get lost in my thoughts for a few moments of bliss – the only time each week when I truly detach from the world of worry, and tasks, and business.

That tranquility of my day-dreaming is only distracted by a game that I must play as I walk the streets of Douglas and Preston, a game which brings me rushing back from peaceful thoughts into the real world of zooming cars driving right at me.

You see, as I walk opposing the roaring zoom of traffic on my Shabbos stroll, I hug the curb, hoping that each car will see me as it approaches and change lanes, moving over so that I need not.

I stay there, in the gutter of the street, in stubborn stubborn defiance for as long as my nerves can manage as a car quickly approaches before hopping at the last moment into the dirt and planters to my side so as not to be run over. Each car comes, I stay on the street as long as I can muster. Most of the time I win, the car changes lanes and I stay put in my place, but often I end up walking in dirt.

Now, I play this game of chicken, I walk foolishly – I admit – in the street of a busy highway, because there is, literally, nowhere else to be.

When you walk out the doors of Shearith and turn right going down Douglas Avenue, you can follow the guided serenity of the sidewalk only until the end of our property. But once you pass the parking lot outside of Aaron Main Sanctuary, the sidewalk is no more. Our neighborhood is purposefully devoid of sidewalks – it was built that way to give it a more country-like feel!

Only a few yards from where we pray today is, quite literally, where the sidewalk ends.

Each time I walk this path, as I move from the security of concrete to the dark black asphalt beneath my feet, I am reminded of the old Shel Silverstein poem, the namesake of his most famous book of childhood poetry: Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The cover of his book, you may remember, is emblazoned with a drawing that so aptly describes the message of his poetry within – two children, peering cautiously over the edge of a sidewalk, itself hanging perilously over oblivion. Beyond is a chasm of emptiness, the very end of the world. They hang there, these two children, where the sidewalk ends, on the precipice of the unknown.

He writes:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

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AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Eikev

In Parashat Eikev, Moses offers the Israelites one of the most moving and persuasive encouragements toward Divine service found in the entire Torah.

As they stand on the edge of the Jordan, they are reminded that Divine service demands walking in the path of God:

“And now, O Israel, what does Adonai your God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve Adonai your God with all your heart and soul… Adonai your God is God supreme and Adonai supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.”

After offering his command to follow this “mighty” Creator, Moses continues with a description of the specific nature of God’s power. Given the many examples of God displaying great physical might, we might expect Moses to mention the Flood, the 10 plagues on Egypt or the splitting of the sea; yet Moses ignores these feats and, instead, continues his praise by focusing on the fact that God “shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”

God’s awesome power, Moses explains, is displayed through love for those afflicted by injustice, those most likely to be trampled on by society at large. Rather than physical might, it is God’s concern for the afflicted that we should emulate.

This is a provocative theological message, to be sure, and one that has crucial practical import for those of us who concern ourselves with the work of global justice. So often, public discourse bifurcates between those interested in exercising power through force and those interested in offering empathic aid as a means for influencing change in the world. We often associate power with oppression, rather than with those who speak out against it. This may leave many of us in the West uncomfortable with thinking of our social justice work as exercising “power,” but by asking us to emulate a God who does so to overcome injustice, our tradition invites us to embrace our empathic force and not to be shy about using it.

Parashat Eikev pushes us to see power and empathy as intrinsically linked, rather than opposites. By exercising power—and refusing to cede it to those with less altruistic goals—we follow in God’s path, realizing our human power through tzedakah and political advocacy.

In fact, Rabbi Abraham, son of the Rambam, instructs us not only to realize our power but to be generous with it, using it to support those who are vulnerable. He teaches, “Proper generosity involves not only money and goods, but also power . . . Generosity with power entails using [the power] bestowed [on us] by God to help those in need . . .”

The work of global justice—helping to alleviate poverty, empowering the voiceless, bringing equality to those corners of the earth still shackled in inequality—is a supremely powerful act that is directly inspired by God’s own concern for the oppressed.

As we strive to serve God, we would be well-served to emulate the Holy One’s great qualities of awesome might coupled with empathy for those afflicted by injustice. We have a convenient reminder to do so thrice daily, as Moses’s iconic description of the Holy One in this parashah as “great, mighty and awesome” is repeated at the beginning of the Amidah—the central petitionary prayer of Jewish worship. In beseeching our Creator for blessing in this world, let us not only focus on God’s physical might but on God’s empathic power, and remind ourselves that upholding the cause of those forgotten around the world is an act of emulating and employing this awesome Divine attribute. This is how we serve our Creator. This, Moses teaches, is what God demands of us.

This Too Shall Pass

Mom,

I cannot begin to comprehend what it must be like living this in your own person.

But, as an outsider who loves you, who cares about you more than life itself, the most painful experience of this whole journey is not from fear of the future, not from worry over what may or may not be. The angst that tears at my heart some days more than others emanates from the fear that you may think that, in this struggle, in this process which rips out your hair and your stomach lining, which breaks your ability to walk and even be awake for days on end, that you may think even for a millisecond that you become even a fraction less human. The pain tearing at my own stomach lining is from worry that you may believe yourself to have even a morsel less dignity now than ever before.

You had a rough day yesterday. There will be more. I hope that today is better.

But more than that, I pray that you realize that so long as you are taking care of yourself, whatever disappointment or embarrassment you may feel from this or that “episode” is just a fleeting bump in the road of cancer’s journey. It does not define you any more than your stupid dark brown hair which for the last fifty six years has hid your beautiful, adorable scalp. You are not cancer. You are Lori Ann Levinson Singer Bolotin. You are your history and your present.

You are as amazing a mother, wife, daughter and friend as anyone could ever ask for. You are a successful fundraiser. And you are adored by so many, all of whom join you in this struggle.

You are not alone.

This morning dad came with me to minyan here at shul. And after the Torah reading it came time for my daily ritual in self-flagellation – when the gabbai prays “Mi Sheberach” and I say your name aloud in the room. I stood, as I do each day, ready to remind myself, remind my community, remind my God, that I pray for your continued strength and blessing through this journey. Though just before I could say your name – Hanah Leah bat Azriel v’Sara Bela – I heard a voice from my side say softly, “Lori Bolotin.”

I was beat to the punch. Dad stole your name from me. For a fleeting moment I was furious. How dare he!? You’re mine to pray for! I’m the child fretting over his mother! I’ve been robbed!

But after that millisecond of distorted angst passed, I realized the blessing in that interaction.

I’m not the only one looking out for you.

We’re all here with you through this, in thick and thin. Some of us are there in person, others of us relegated to far away places where all we can do to help is write emotional words on an internet site.

But do not think, for one ounce of a moment, that in any part of this journey that you are in any way alone, or isolated, or have any reason to feel any less human, any less amazing, any less yourself. Not ever. Do not you dare.

The bad days will pass, the good days will come, but we’ll all be here standing with you – energy to talk with us or not – the whole while.

This too shall pass.

I love you,

AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Chukat

The pursuit of global justice can often feel like a desert trek, with no oasis or end in sight. We work tirelessly toward our goals without certainty that we will reach them in our lifetimes. Sometimes, the never-ending struggle without reward overwhelms us. We may express anger, lash out or attempt to give up. Yet the Torah provides us with an inspiring role model who experiences the frustration of an elusive goal—but perseveres as if success were in his hands.

In Parashat Chukkat, the Israelites are surrounded by wilderness and lack water. God instructs Moses to bring forth water by speaking to a rock. Disobeying these specific instructions, Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff. For this sin, he is banned from ever entering the Land of Israel. Moses has worked so hard to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land, and yet, despite all his work, he will never see the fruits of his labor realized. One might imagine the devastation this news must have wrought on the prophet.

And yet, Moses still works until the day of his death to bring the people closer to their ultimate goal. He raises a disciple to lead the people after him and works toward their goal as if he, himself, would be entering the land along with them.

Most crucially, in the immediate aftermath of his punishment, Moses does not wallow in his loss. Rather, he focuses steadfastly on the task at hand. Just one verse after God’s punishment, Moses sends messengers forward to the King of Edom to secure passage for the Israelites through his territory. He does not dwell on what he will not achieve; rather, his attention is keenly focused on the next action necessary for achieving the ultimate goal—however distant it may be.

Many of us laboring for global justice can relate to Moses’s disappointment at knowing he would never reach the Promised Land. For us, the knowledge that an ultimate triumph over the perils of poverty may not happen in our lifetimes can be disheartening. So, how can we remain inspired to continue fighting even if we know that progress will be slow and long in coming—and that we may never realize the fruits of our labor ourselves? Here we must learn from Moses’s perseverance and remember that we join in this labor of love altruistically, and not out of an egotistical desire to see our efforts immediately realized.

Of course, maintaining this perspective when the work is so hard and the setbacks so deep is not easy. But Moses’s example instructs us to focus on the short-term steps of the larger struggle, and all the small triumphs along the way. The road between today’s painful reality and complete justice for all is paved with stones of possibility—the possibility of improved life for one community at a time, and the possibility of greater justice and equality, eventually, for millions throughout the world.

Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT), an AJWS grantee in Kenya, found its stones of possibility in the fight against a dam. The proposed Gibe 3 Dam would cut off the local water supply and threaten the livelihood of the incredibly diverse 200,000 inhabitants down-river. While the organization has not yet attained its goal of ending the threat of environmental degradation in eastern Africa overall, it has succeeded in empowering indigenous communities throughout Ethiopia to speak with a unified voice against this dam. Thanks to their efforts, several major banks have withdrawn their financing for the project and Ikal Angelei, FoLT’s founder and driving force, was recently awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. This is a major success to be celebrated even if it isn’t a complete realization of the ultimate goal—environmental restoration, prosperity and justice in the region. The excitement of this honor should inspire us to continue pursuing our stones of possibility that pave our road toward greater achievements ahead.

There are no shortcuts in life’s greatest tasks—neither for Moses in his leadership of the Israelites nor for us as we labor to bring justice to the far corners of the Earth. The desert is vast, and the Promised Land far away. But the journey provides ample opportunities for celebration of incremental successes and triumphs. By focusing on these small stones, rather than on the entire journey, we can gain the strength to persevere. As long as we do so, those who will cross the desert in future generations will have a well-laid path on which to tread.