Tag Archives: Dvar Tzedek

Chag v’Chesed: Holiday Dvar Tzedek, Sukkot 5774

Chag v'ChesedWhat is it about the holiday of Sukkot that makes it so powerful? Tradition teaches that the energy of Sukkot is so intense, so visceral and delightful, that seven mythic figures leave the Garden of Eden to join in the light of our earthly sukkot (temporary shelters). But why? What is it about the sukkah that compels even those who have tasted Paradise?

These spirit guests, known as the Ushpizin, are invited each night into our sukkot. Groupings of Ushpizin vary by community, and include biblical prophetess, revered sages and modern heroes, invoked in turn each night of Sukkot. Jewish mystical tradition suggests that each guest also serves as a reminder of an action through which the brokenness of our world is repaired.

Read More »

Posted in Giving, Jewish Justice | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Dvar Tzedek, Jewish Justice | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Lech Lecha 5773

One of the things I find most inspiring about studying Torah is that the biblical characters are human. They may be our valorized, mythical ancestors, but they also consistently make mistakes, leaving a record of paradigmatic human foibles from which we can learn. There is one biblical failure, however, that I have always struggled to understand as a useful example. It occurs for the first time in this week’s parashah, as Avram goes to Egypt to avoid the famine in Canaan:

As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” Read More »

Posted in Jewish Justice | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Breishit 5773

We are, by nature, creatures of habit. We find comfort in things that are familiar, carving out routines that give our lives order. But repetition also leads to the curious subduing of awareness that we call “autopilot”—the feeling we get when we arrive at work having absolutely no recollection of the roads or steps we took to get there. Autopilot can free our brains for daydreaming or creative thinking, but when its numbing effect starts to creep into important activities in our daily lives, it can dim our passion for things that once excited or inspired us.

This week, as we begin the familiar refrain of the opening chapters of the Torah in Parashat Breishit for the umpteenth time in Jewish history, it’s so easy to zone out in this way. After all, “In the beginning” is not really the beginning; we’ve heard it before. How often do we sit in synagogue hearing the chant with our ears but thinking other thoughts? Suddenly the Torah is being lifted and tied 30 minutes later and we have no recollection of all of the aliyot in between—let alone any deep thinking about the vital content within them. Read More »

Posted in Jewish Justice | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Sukkah of Peace: Chag v’Chesed Holiday Dvar Tzedek, Sukkot 5773

Few symbols associated with our holiday cycle are as colorful and interesting as the sukkah. Following the biblical command that we should dwell in this temporary and frail shelter for seven days, many Jews today will not eat under a fixed roof during the entire period of the festival, taking their meals in the sukkah and eating, conversing, singing—truly a moving experience.

What is the meaning of this commandment? I offer one insight from a line in the Hashkivenu prayer, contained in each evening service, which reads: “Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha—Spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.”  Read More »

Posted in Jewish Justice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Making a Difference Inside Out: Chag v’Chesed Holiday Dvar Tzedek, Yom Kippur 5773

On the Days of Awe we often turn inward: immersing ourselves in prayer, fasting, working on spiritual growth and confronting expectations of change. In so many ways, these days are a time when we focus on internal matters. Although our prayer confessions are written in the plural, we usually dwell on our own singular faults. And despite the special commandment to welcome guests, many have the custom not to invite anyone outside the family to the holiday table to keep the days somber, reflective and intimate.

Yet, if we turn back to our oldest Jewish texts, our prophets often regarded our inwardness as a fault and a deficiency, particularly on holidays. Our mandate in the world as a covenantal people is to bring light to other nations and not only perseverate on our own needs and ills. We cannot only look inward and focus on our own spiritual growth through fasting and prayer alone; we must look outwards to the needs of others. Read More »

Posted in Jewish Justice | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Vayelech 5773

Last year, as part of an alternative Rosh Hashanah service I attended, we discussed one of the central themes of the holiday—kingship. It was interesting to note how many of us ‘moderns’ struggle with the concept of an external authority who is judging us and then determining our destiny. Many of the participants spoke about the contradiction between the Jewish liturgy, which depicts an external God as the source of authority, and the more contemporary idea that our internal conscience should guide our actions. I, too, shared this discomfort, so I found it interesting that Parashat Vayelech, read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, offers a more balanced perspective on the various loci of power in the Torah.

Read More »

Posted in Jewish Justice | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Ki Tavo 5772

“… Arami oved avi—my father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt in meager numbers, but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us, oppressed us, imposed heavy labor upon us… Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Adonai, have given me.”

These lines, perhaps best known to many of us from the Passover Haggadah, also comprise the text of the ancient first-fruits (Bikkurim) ritual described in Parashat Ki Tavo. Once settled in the Land of Israel, our ancestors were commanded to offer God a basket of the first of their fruit crops. Beyond this physical act, the ritual required each person making the offering to recite this passage (called Mikra Bikkurim), summing the arc of the Jewish redemptive narrative through both a personal and collective lens. The ritual’s combination of the physical and verbal, individual and communal, spiritual and historical seem to render it an “ideal” ritual.

But the Mishnah points out one snag. While those who knew the words of Mikra Bikkurimrecited it from memory, those unfamiliar with the script would have to repeat the words after a priest. As a result, many of these presumably less-educated Israelites felt “shame” and stopped bringing their first-fruit offerings altogether. Concerned that not every Israelite would thus be able to participate equally, the Mishnah offered a corrective measure in which everyone, regardless of education, had to repeat after the priest, thus preserving the dignity of the under-educated and allowing the return of regular ritual performance for all. Read More »

Posted in Jewish Justice | Tagged | Leave a comment

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 »

Posted in Dvar Tzedek, Jewish Justice | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Chukat 5772

As the Israelites wind down their adventures in the desert and prepare to enter the Promised Land as a free generation, they must again confront their faith in God’s ability to protect and provide for them. At the heart of Parshat Chukat is the puzzling episode of Moses and the rock that yields water. Through Moses and the costly mistake that he makes, this parshah teaches us the proper way to express trust in God. The challenges that Moses and the Israelites face in finding the right way to engage in and express their belief in God challenge us to think about the ways we demonstrate commitment to our values in the public sphere. Read More »

Posted in Jewish Justice | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment