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On Giants and Grasshoppers

For the rest of my life, I will never forget Thursday, June 7, the day we learned that the rare, malignant cancer in my mom’s leg had metastasized into her lungs.

The news was a shock to all who know and love Lori Ann Bolotin, the most impatient, neurotic, obsessive, lovable woman I could ever even imagine being blessed to call my mother.

She does not deserve this. No one does. But the real task ahead for those of us supporting her on the sidelines is how to make sense of the enormity of emotions we feel as we wait from chemotherapy to free her body of this disease.

And so, it is with that thought in mind, coupled with the immense love I feel for my mom, my family, and all the amazing, wonderful, beautiful souls who have reached out in support these past few weeks, that I turned to Torah – to this week’s parsha in particular – for guidance in this liminal moment, as we nervously look ahead to the newest phase in our lives.

These were the best thoughts that I – a son, a student of Torah, a rabbi – could muster. I pray that I am able to cling to these convictions through the difficult weeks ahead.

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AJWS Dvar Tzedek – Parshat Bamidbar

In the beginning of the book of Bamidbar, Moses is instructed to call together all of the Israelites in the wilderness in order to undertake a census of the people. Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah explains the significance of this census by way of a parable about a man who has a box filled with jewels. From time to time, he would take them out and count them, in order to check that they were safe and intact and to marvel at their beauty. Bamidbar Rabbah teaches that, like the character of this parable, God expresses Divine love for each person through the censuses of the Israelites—counting them and marveling at their beauty.

This message is powerful, with important ramifications for the building of a just society based on equality for all. And yet, its poignancy is marred by the fact that the census accounts only for 600,000 adult men; so evidently missing from the “lovingly counted jewels” is fifty percent of the population—its women.

Many historical and practical reasons can explain the absence of women from the census: Most ancient texts, the Bible included, focus nearly exclusively on the males of a community. In addition, this census was for the purposes of army recruitment, a male-only task in its time. But rationalizing women’s exclusion from the census cannot erase the uncomfortable value judgment on women’s worth that can be derived from the midrash, nor does it justify the perpetuation of this exclusion in societies today—from parts of the Jewish community to communities worldwide.

This is especially egregious throughout the Global South, where the wanton suppression of women’s rights and equality continues, either through law or custom—or both. Because of their enforced second-class status in many countries, women remain hidden from society, unable to be counted in their nations’ development.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, women in many developing countries still lack rights to own land and inherit property, obtain access to credit, attend school and earn income in the job market, free from discrimination. This suppression of women’s rights contributes directly to the high rates of early marriage, lack of education and vulnerability to gender-based violence that exist throughout the Global South. Without basic freedoms, women are left at the whims of society, unable to determine their own fates.

Yet there are many organizations working to reverse this trend. In India, AJWS grantee Girls Rise India works to empower women through education and financial support, to enable them to start their own businesses. Similarly, an organization called Shaheen labors to bring equality specifically to women in India’s Muslim population. Its founder, Jameela Nishat, recognized that this sub-group was particularly vulnerable to the ills of disempowerment. Her organization, run by women and girls for women and girls, uses an integrated, rights-based approach to support, educate and empower the marginalized women and girls of local Muslim communities to lead lives free from discrimination, violence and poverty. According to Jameela, “If girls are empowered, it spreads education . . . when education spreads, there is the possibility of changing mindsets . . . stopping violence.”

When we support organizations working to empower women, enabling them to raise their voices and express their ideas, we help to enable entirely half of the population in many areas of the Global South to realize their rights and contribute to their nations’ futures. It would serve communities worldwide well to recognize the mistake of excluding half a community from representation, significance and importance. All nations, but in particular those in the developing world, need all the resources they can muster in order to overcome poverty, disease and oppression. When given the chance to take active roles in their communities, women have demonstrated that they are powerful drivers of change.

Parshat Bamidbar teaches us that numbers matter, that each individual has significance. But by excluding women, its message of equality falls short. We must write women into the midrash, insisting that their value is included in the total. Each person is a jewel—men and women alike. When they are allowed to shine equally, to be counted together, a mosaic of beautiful stones will shine forth from each land.

AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Vayikra

The book of Leviticus begins with a call. The first word of this section of Torah, from which it gets its Hebrew name—vayikra—describes God calling out to Moses, inviting the prophet to enter in to the Tent of Meeting, the space in which Moses is able to communicate with God and exercise his role as leader of Israel.

Why, the Rabbis ask, does Moses, of all people, await God’s invitation before entering this holy space? After all, Moses has spoken face-to-face with God already, seen God’s back and witnessed revelation directly.

By way of a parable, the Rabbis point to a king’s servant, so exercised in his servitude that he comes and goes from the king’s throne room without hesitation.

Surely, Moses had no obligation to await God’s call before entering this holy space to embark on his important work.

Furthermore, Moses’s hesitation seems a bit impractical in practice. What if God had never called out for him? Was not Moses already acutely aware of the need for his service to the Divine? In waiting for an explicit call, might he have delayed important work or undermined his own significance as a religious leader with the tools and skills necessary for addressing the needs of his people?

To make sense of his odd behavior, the Rabbis argue that this was a display of Moses’s extreme humility: despite his knowledge that he was needed and welcome in the Tent of Meeting, he still was not so brazen as to just walk in without an invitation. Great is the person, the Rabbis say, who is so restrained in his ego that he stands ready to serve, but does not begin the work before being asked.

We have much to learn from Moses’s humility. If the single prophet with carte blanche to enter God’s holy space as he pleased hesitated before intruding, how much more so should we, in our lives, pause before assuming that our presence or input is welcome in someone else’s business? How often do we jump in and offer solutions to others’ problems before being asked?

This was especially on my mind in 2009, when I participated in AJWS’s Rabbinical Students’ Delegation to Thies, Senegal. Prior to my trip, I stood outside the “door” to the Global South, just like Moses did at the opening of the Tent of Meeting, waiting for the call. My colleagues and I wanted to offer our help to a community living in poverty, but it was clear that there was no invitation coming. Senegalese men and women certainly needed aid, but the help they needed was that of financial grants and training; they weren’t calling out for short-term service volunteers.

And my experience was not unique. Every year, thousands upon thousands of people, young and old, face this same quandary as they seek to volunteer their time in the Global South, wanting to help solve the problems that communities face. In most cases, there is no explicit call for our help. Yet we go anyway, entering the “tent” and hoping that we will be useful. Given this reality, it may seem prudent to question the value of service-learning trips. Instead, I suggest a new paradigm for understanding these experiences and their worth: we are not going to solve problems; we are going to learn, listen and connect.

Jo Ann Van Engen, who runs Calvin College’s Semester in Honduras program, articulates the value of service-learning programs in this way. She writes:

I suggest we stop thinking about short-term missions as a service to perform, and start thinking of them as a responsibility to learn. Let’s raise money to send representatives to find out what our brothers and sisters are facing, what we can do to help, and how we can build long-term relationships.

The lack of direct invitation from the Global South does not mean that we, following Moses’ example, should wait forever before signing up to volunteer. Rather, we can and should enter the Global South, but we must do so with humility. In engaging in service-learning opportunities, we must recognize that our role there is not that of problem-solver, but of guests in the holy space of others. Thus humbled, we listen carefully to our host’s needs while we’re in their midst, and remain cognizant that we are there in order to learn, develop relationships and to build ever-growing global commitments to the pursuit of peace.

AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Vayechi

Following the burial of their father Jacob in Parshat Vayechi, Joseph’s brothers worry aloud: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!?” Despite the good grace Joseph had shown them upon their reunification, the debt they owe him for having sold him into slavery so many years prior still lingers. The eleven brothers feel so burdened by this debt that they are willing to do anything—even become slaves themselves—in order to be free from it.

Many of the medieval rabbinic commentators believed that these fears were well founded. Rabbeinu Bachya, the 14th-century Spanish scholar, notes that in all of Torah there is not one single reference to Joseph actually forgiving his brothers. In not ever explicitly forgiving them, Joseph allowed their debt to cast its shadow of anxiety over them in perpetuity.

Similarly, many countries in the Global South have the threat of debt casting an onerous shadow over their lands—debt owed to international financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF and to wealthy countries like our own. Many of these debts were first incurred decades ago—often by corrupt or despotic regimes—in order to offset collapsing commodity prices. Paradoxically, the money that nations borrowed to support their development is now the stumbling block to progress. Because these loans incur interest greater than the amounts debtors are able to pay off, countries become stuck in an endless trap of interest payments to the West. And every penny paid by the Global South in interest payments to Western banks is money that cannot be invested in their own development and their future. They, like Joseph’s brothers, are enslaved by their indebtedness.

Although both situations appear bleak, the Torah provides a model for stopping the perpetuation of limitless debt. We are taught that every 50th year—called the Jubilee—all debts are to be released and all property returned to its rightful owner.5 The Jubilee is not a blanket free-for-all or amnesty from bad financial decisions; it is a tool for ensuring freedom from unrelenting debts, redemption from the oppression of perpetual burdens. The Jubilee year serves to regularly restore equality and equity among communities.

Taking the biblical Jubilee as its namesake, Jubilee USA, an alliance of more than 75 religious and human rights-focused groups, works to ensure the definitive cancellation of the crushing debts that loom over the heads of the world’s poorest nations. Support for their work, and that of all those laboring on behalf of debt cancellation—including AJWS—is an important part of global justice activism.

The impact of debt relief is profound: debt cancellation allows developing nations to focus on the provision of basic human needs such as education and health care for their citizens. For example, debt cancellation in Uganda resulted in a doubling of school enrollment; in Mozambique it allowed for the vaccination of five hundred thousand children.6 In Haiti, forgiveness of bilateral debt to the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund has enabled the country to better focus on recovering from the 2010 earthquake.

Unfortunately, Joseph never forgave his brothers’ debt to him, and the enduring acrimony and fear was a stumbling block for the rest of their lives. As many of us have experienced in our own personal relationships, we can never fully move on until we completely let go of our claims to the past. We cannot be released from the burden of regret until those to whom we are indebted forgive us explicitly. The same is true in a global context. May we learn from Joseph and his brothers’ experience, and work to free developing nations from the oppression of debt, building towards a better and brighter future for the entire planet.

To read the full commentary and podcast, click here.

AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Toldot

Esau is a character derided by the Jewish tradition. Depicted as a brute, unintelligent and powerful man of the field, Esau is often seen as the opposite of the rabbinic ideal: his twin brother Jacob. Yet Parshat Toldotsuggests that we not be so quick to dismiss him. Esau’s experience, after all, may very well mirror our own.

Before being swindled out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, Esau comes home from working in the field all day. The Torah makes a point of noting that he “was tired.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the significance of this verse:

Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed. This is just like modern man, who, with all his progress, his innovations and his inventions, is still full of internal doubt, tortured by disappointment, bothered by anxiety, fearing death. Esau came from the field and he was tired…

Focused solely on physical success, Esau finished his day existentially exhausted: unfulfilled, demoralized and disappointed. Soloveitchik’s commentary pushes us to see the ways in which our own physical accomplishments don’t bring us the fulfillment we might expect them to.

I, too, once came from the field and was tired.

In 2009, I joined 20 fellow rabbinical students from across the denominational spectrum on an AJWS delegation to Thies, Senegal. There, we spent a week working with AJWS grantee Tostan to build latrines in two villages—Darou Mouride and Keur Songo.

On my first day in Darou Mouride I was sent out to work with some of the villagers. We were taken to labor in their “field”—a barren landscape filled with weeds and cracked earth. There was no irrigation to be had; they hardly owned a plow. And yet we worked for hours, moving dirt and burning weeds. Covered in sweat and dust, by the end of this labor I felt like I had accomplished nothing. The poverty around me is overwhelming, I thought. No amount of physical labor can rectify this. I was exhausted, disappointed and anxious.

When Esau came back from the field that day, he literally gave up on his future out of his desperation over the moment. His disappointment at the futility of his labor was so strong that hunger and exhaustion took over, enabling his brother Jacob to swindle him out of his birthright in exchange for a simple bowl of soup. Esau’s disillusionment blinded him to his own self-interest and success.

So had mine. I was so focused on the horror of the poverty I witnessed that, without immediate success, I was left demoralized and disappointed—so tired that I was ready to give up.

As I walked back into the center of the village, I was followed by a small child—no older than five or six. Disheartened by my day’s fruitless labor, I sat down on a chair, and this stranger sat there with me. Suddenly, the silence around me was broken. “Popmusonjop!” he exclaimed. He said it again, and again and again. It was his name. “David!” I offered back. He reached out and held my hand.

We spoke no common language other than the smiles on our faces. And yet, there, in the middle of this village whose name I could hardly pronounce, we played silly games I remembered from elementary school; we kicked around a dilapidated soccer ball, ran around together and laughed and smiled. The companionship I brought to Popmusonjop gave him a fun afternoon; the relief he offered me was redemptive. It refueled my drive to confront the poverty I saw and continue to work toward alleviating it.

Human connections like this one are the antidote to the doubt and exhaustion we can so easily feel as social justice activists. Whether these connections come from those who benefit from our social activism, like Popmusonjop, or from our peers in a community of fellow Jewish activists, they are what nurture us through the great task ahead. Because without them, we are like Esau: so exhausted that we give in to our urge to accept short-term comfort over the more elusive birthright towards which we have been striving.

Healing our world is not a venture for the individual. The task is too large. Without companionship, it’s hard to remember why we’re doing this hard work in the first place and to know not to give up when progress is slow. But as long as we don’t go out there alone, as long as we don’t try to work a field all day by ourselves, we can remind each other that the cause is more important than the immediate discomfort and remain ever-optimistic of the possibility of eventual triumph. Working for the future of this planet—securing a birthright dedicated to justice, equality and responsibility—is a tiring task that requires human connection to sustain us along the way.

For the full commentary and podcast, click here.