Category Archives: Dvar Tzedek

Chag v’Chesed: Holiday Dvar Tzedek,Yom Kippur 5774

Chag v'Chesed

Is apathy inherited? Is inaction passed on from generation to generation? Will our lack of responsiveness to global anguish be passed on to our children?

When it comes to the question of whether our sins will be visited upon generations to come, Sinai and the Golden Calf offer us a clue.

While the story is likely familiar to us, its connection to Yom Kippur may be less well known: Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive God’s law. But he was gone so long that the Israelites doubted he was coming back. In their panic, they turned to Moses’ brother and lieutenant, Aaron, to help them build a totem to stand in for God. (Exodus 32:1) Aaron instructed his people to turn over their gold jewelry and he melted it down to mold the golden calf.

When God observed this heresy and distrust, God was disgusted and enraged, vowing to destroy the entire people and start a new line from Moses. But Moses went back up the peak to talk God down, asking what was the point of destroying a people so recently delivered. God relented and on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei (Yom Kippur), Moses returned to his flock with a message of atonement. But God made clear that the leniency was not open-ended, saying, “[God] does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7)

The sinner’s descendants pay a price.

Whether one thinks it’s fair to punish a child for a parent’s missteps, there’s no escaping the reality of inherited sins. If our children see us lose our temper with a waiter, aren’t they likely to mistreat people who serve them in the future? If our children watch us texting while we’re talking to them, haven’t they learned that one needn’t give someone full attention? If our children see us choose to go to a yoga class instead of a colleague’s shiva, haven’t we taught them priorities? And on a more indelible scale, if our children see that our most generous acts are done almost entirely for our inner circle of family and friends, rarely for the stranger—the factory worker we don’t know in Bangladesh, the nurse toiling without medical supplies in Tanzania, the child (whose blistered feet could be our child’s feet) walking miles to school in Mexico—then how should they possibly absorb the message that we have a responsibility to alleviate suffering, no matter how distant the pain?

I can’t hold myself up as a role model. For the last three years, every Thursday I’ve helped serve breakfast at dawn to 100 homeless people at our synagogue. But I don’t do anything for them the rest of the week, nor am I involved in efforts to change the system that keeps them homeless.

I participated in Hurricane Sandy relief, but only while the crisis was acute.

I hosted children from the Fresh Air Fund two summers in a row, but couldn’t figure out how to remain in their lives without feeling intrusive or awkward, so we lost touch.

So what do my children see? That I’m involved, but to a point. That I give of my time and money, but that my most generous moments involve the people closest to me. That I rarely broach the world’s horrors with them because I worry they’ll feel traumatized instead of galvanized. That I don’t enumerate the checks my husband and I write because it feels inappropriate to list donations.

All of us justify our own action or inaction but I think we too readily say, “I’ve done enough.” It’s actually not enough. We all know that the international need is bottomless, and granted, guilt is not a constructive motivator. But when we think about what kind of people we want our children to be, (and I hear so many parents fret about how to make their kids aware of privilege), perhaps we should look at whether we’re laying the groundwork for future benevolence or careerism? Do we send the message that we value good work as much as good grades? Are we committing sins of silence that our children are destined to recommit?

God may have been harsh and punitive in promising to “visit the iniquity of parents upon children,” but it’s a warning worth hearing. When we don’t act, our children learn inaction. When we don’t read aloud from the morning’s toughest news stories, our children are untouched by them. When we aren’t willing to upend our comfortable routines to figure out how to help “heal the world,” then all our talk about the importance of tikkun olam is just talk.

I am the first to say that it’s hard to look at global heartbreak without flinching. It’s hard to internalize the world’s brokenness: girls who are robbed of an education; ethnic minorities who are denied jobs and healthcare; LGBT people who face relentless abuse of their basic human rights; garment workers who are not paid a decent wage; and millions of people who experience the chronic reality of hunger and violence. But our failure to look begets our failure to act. Which begets another generation of bystanders. On these days of renewal and repentance, let’s be honest about our sins of inertia and whether, like the ancient crime of the Golden Calf, we’re passing them on.

Abigail Pogrebin is a former producer for 60 Minutes and Charlie Rose, and has written for many publications including The Daily Beast, New York Magazine, and Tablet. She is the author of Stars of Jews: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (2005), which is being adapted for the stage, and One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular (2009). She moderates an interview series at the JCC in Manhattan called “What Everyone’s Talking About” and for the last three years has co-authored Newsweek’s list of Most Influential Rabbis.

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Balak 5772

“God has told you, human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

These beautiful and tantalizing words from the prophet Michah close the haftarah portion that accompanies this week’s parashaBalak. Beautiful, because they lay out a powerful vision of an ideal Jewish life that will please God and bring us wisdom—a life of doing justice, loving goodness and walking modestly with God. Tantalizing, because it’s not at all clear what particular behaviors, attitudes or beliefs are being mandated. Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Tetzaveh 5772

In third grade, my Hebrew School teacher took our class into the sanctuary to point out its most important fixtures. After the Ark and the Torah scroll, he directed our eyes up to the very top of the ceiling, from which hung a sphere-shaped lamp. With our necks craned to gaze up at the orb’s flickering light, he announced: “That is the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light—it NEVER goes out!” Our oohs and ahhs abounding, we stood mystified, attributing the light’s sustained flame to Divine power. Of course, we later learned that it was fueled by the electric company, but nevertheless, at no point did we worry that the light might be extinguished, nor did we feel any responsibility to maintain the spark ourselves.

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Beshalach 5772

In the lead-up to Parshat Beshalach, ten plagues hit the Egyptians, destroying their land and decimating their population. And yet, Pharaoh stubbornly blinds himself to the suffering of his own people: the more their situation worsens, the more he hardens his heart, refusing to liberate the Israelite slaves. His frustrated advisors cannot understand his behavior, which victimizes the Egyptians at every turn. Finally, they plead: “Let the people go, so that they may serve the Lord their God! Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?” Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Shmot 5772

Something’s different! This week marks the second installment of a new, experimental initiative: the Dvar Tzedek Text Study. Periodically over the next six months, our weekly Torah commentary will take this interactive format. We hope that you’ll use our text studies to actively engage with the parshah and contemporary global justice issues.

Consider using this text study in any of the following ways:

  • Learn collectively. Discuss it with friends, family or colleagues. Try using it as a conversation-starter at your Shabbat table.
  • Enrich your own learning. Read it as you would a regular Dvar Tzedek and reflect on the questions it raises.
  • Teach. Use the ideas and reactions it sparks in you as the basis for your own dvar Torah.

Please take two minutes to tell us what you think of this experimental format by completing this feedback form.

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Food Aid: Help or Harm? Both.

Contradictions are popping up a lot around here lately: By now, you’ve likely heard AJWS say “U.S. food aid saves lives but it’s also causing more hunger.”  We’re often uncomfortable with contradictions like these, and instead, crave clear messages that we can embrace: hunger is bad. Aid is good. Too bad things can’t be that simple.

It turns out that food aid has been a complicated topic all the way back to biblical times, when the imprisoned patriarch Joseph was charged with devising a plan for avoiding a hunger crisis in Egypt. He decided to hoard food during the “seven years of plenty” and distribute it to hungry Egyptians during the “seven years of famine”—the world’s earliest example of in-kind food aid. Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Vayigash 5772

Through its description of the devastating famine in ancient Egypt, Parshat Vayigash suggests two models that can inform our response to hunger today. By this point in the biblical narrative, Joseph, Pharaoh’s trusted vizier, has been reunited with his brothers in Egypt. The rest of his family, however, is still suffering from terrible famine in Canaan. Pharaoh’s solution to the family’s plight is to invite the whole clan to move to Egypt, where he will support them in this time of need. Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Vayera 5772

Even in a book as rich with astonishing moments as Genesis, Parshat Vayera is hard to top. At its heart is a story of a man wrestling with God, with grave consequences: from their struggle, the very notion of moral behavior is born, as well as the spirit that propels each of us into action for the common good. Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5771

When I was eighteen, my grandfather enlisted me in a signature-gathering campaign. We advocated for the addition of an amendment to Oregon’s state constitution that would declare health care a fundamental right. Working alongside him, I found myself captivated by his tireless insistence that we each have the responsibility to care for the vulnerable. “We all know someone who lacks affordable and accessible healthcare,” he repeated over and over. “These are our family, friends and neighbors who are suffering.” This message became all the more real to me when, in the midst of the campaign, my grandfather was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. However, instead of slowing down and focusing on his health, he continued campaigning between chemotherapy treatments, bringing along his medical bills—totaling tens of thousands of dollars—as evidence of the injustice of the system. He would ask people how we, as a community, could expect someone without insurance to survive such financial hardship. I was deeply affected by the personalization of the issue, and felt a new and very real urgency for the need to help protect the vulnerable.

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Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Ki Tavo 5771

Several months ago, my husband was stopped by one of the ubiquitous young people on the streets of Manhattan fundraising for good causes. He was told that for just $22 a month, he could sponsor a needy child in the Global South. Moved by the pitch, he signed up, and soon after, a photo of an adorable young girl arrived in the mail. When he told me what he had signed on for, I was touched to be married to the type of man who gives freely when asked. But I also wondered about the organization itself—its giving practices and how much of its funding actually reaches the children it was established to support. I did some online research and was surprised to discover that the organization’s CEO makes almost half a million dollars a year and that there was no analysis of its programmatic impact. But its overall rankings on reputable charitable accountability websites were high, and I already felt emotionally bound to the girl whose picture sat on our desk, so we have been supporters ever since. Yet this question—of how to translate our good intentions into effective giving, is one that many of us face regularly. Read More »

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