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Chanukah 5775: Rededicating Ourselves to Helping Others, By Congressman Eliot Engel

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Chanukah 5775: Rededicating Ourselves to Helping Others
By Congressman Eliot Engel

Chanukah is one of the Jewish people’s most beloved holidays. We light the menorah, sing songs and eat delicious food. It’s a celebration of life and Jewish survival. And, like most holidays that commemorate a struggle against oppression, it is also a time of collective and personal reflection. When I reflect on the story of Chanukah there are two intertwined themes that mean the most to me: shining light in dark places and dedication.

Referred to as the “festival of lights,” Chanukah recounts the tale of the Maccabees freeing themselves from Greek oppression and the miracle that followed the liberation of the desecrated Holy Temple. The Temple was host to an eternal flame, but following its desecration, only enough oil remained to produce light for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days and nights. Of the many things that this has come to symbolize, one is that the miracle of light banished the darkness that had befallen the Temple, the Maccabees and the Jewish people.

The word Chanukah translates to “dedication,” which is commonly connected to the rededication of the desecrated Temple. But one could also interpret the holiday’s name as referring to the Jews being a people dedicated to freedom and the struggle against injustice.

Chanukah should serve as a reminder that we, as a people, must be dedicated to shining light in places where there is none and helping people overcome the obstacles in front of them. As a Jew and as Ranking Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives, I have been dedicated to, among other things, the pursuit of better global health. I believe that we are all responsible for shining light on public health issues, especially in the developing world.

The current Ebola outbreak is a clear reminder of the significant danger of health-related emergencies and the need to re-prioritize good public health and health care access. To date, this outbreak has cost almost 5,500 people their lives, and that number is expected to dramatically increase before this epidemic is fully contained. Beyond the loss of life, we see ripple effects spreading across the affected areas. The World Bank Group released a report on October 7th that found the annual GDP growth in Guinea may contract from 4.5 to 2.4 percent, in Liberia from 5.9 percent to 2.5 percent, and in Sierra Leone from 11.3 percent to 8 percent—as a direct result of the Ebola epidemic. Even with work underway to rapidly scale up efforts to contain the disease, the total loss in GDP for the West Africa sub-region could be as high as $2.2 billion in 2014 and $1.6 billion in 2015 under the best case scenario, which is far from assured. Ebola isn’t just killing the people it infects; it’s creating an unexpected global financial burden that will hurt all of us.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 24.7 million people living with HIV, which represents more than two thirds of all people who are infected. In 2013, there were an estimated 1.5 million new infections in the region, and an estimated 1.1 million adults and children died of AIDS. These are more than startling statistics; they are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. And prior to U.S. intervention, HIV/AIDS threatened to eliminate an entire generation in Africa. Like Ebola, HIV/AIDS has threatened to destroy economies and destabilize nations.

No one has done more than the United States to battle these problems. The U.S. has already contributed more than $600 million to the Ebola response efforts. Furthermore, President Obama has requested $6.18 billion in supplemental funding from Congress to fight the disease. We’ve put medical professionals on the ground, working around the clock to contain and halt the spread of the outbreak. On the HIV/AIDS front, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program remains the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease internationally. Over 6.7 million people are receiving life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment; more than 12.8 million pregnant women received HIV testing and counseling last year; and as a result of treatment, the one-millionth baby was born HIV-free last year. PEPFAR has also provided care and support to nearly 17 million people. But, these developments should not belie the fact that it is not enough. Not even close.

We also need to remember that governments alone can’t solve these problems. The international community includes NGOs, multilateral organizations, faith communities, the private sector and concerned and dedicated individuals.

American Jewish World Service is a shining example of how regular people can make an enormous difference. The organization has already raised more than one million dollars for the Ebola response. It is working with its partners on the ground in Africa to distribute essential sanitation materials and to inform areas with high illiteracy rates of the most recent developments. It has also been working on HIV/AIDS education programs in Africa for years. Their efforts have proven to be invaluable and their leadership courageous.

Jewish identity is closely associated with assisting the sick and the poor. It is not only a good deed but a duty, a mitzvah. On this Chanukah, re-dedicate yourself to helping those less fortunate. Get active, get informed, and be there for those who need our help. During the holiday, as the Chanukah menorah shines light on darkness, think of how you can become involved with organizations that understand our responsibilities to shine light on issues that need more attention. The health of our world depends on it.

 

EliotEngelCongressman Engel is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Engel has been a leader in global health, promoting an improved reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Assistance (PEPFAR). Within the PEPFAR bill Rep. Engel successfully included his bill, the Stop Tuberculosis Now Act. This measure provides increased U.S. support for international TB control activities and promotes research to develop new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. Congressman Engel is also the author of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, and has written important laws relating to Albania and Kosova, Cyprus, and Irish affairs, among others. He is the co-author of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which addresses the child slave labor in the cocoa fields of Africa, and is the leader in the House of Representatives on U.S. policy toward Latin American and the Caribbean. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, Congressman Engel is married to Pat Engel. They have three children.

 

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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.

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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: 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 »

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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 »

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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 »

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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 »

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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.

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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 »

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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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