Judaism is a religion of obligations, not of rights. This amazing insight was offered by Rabbi Michael Pollack on Yom Kippur.
Upon watching a documentary about World War One I learned that the United States entered the Great War because we believed in a greater good, a higher calling and a noble cause. That war ended 100 years ago with a treaty creating a League of Nations to promote cooperation, acknowledge obligations, keep open and honorable relations, and maintain justice.
50 years later this country experienced an inner turmoil. 1968 was a threshold year when we awoke to the full power of the individual and non-violent protest. Students rose up from their seats and exited their classrooms, across this country to make their voices heard. They demanded an end to the Vietnam War shaking campuses across the country. They called out for justice, freedom and equality. 1968 changed the way Americans understood their power to make the world a better place.
Not every year is a watershed year for the expansion of justice, freedom and equality. There are years of wandering without dedication to a greater good, a higher calling, or a noble cause.
For Jews, we have three thousand years or more of Torah guiding us toward creating a better world. And we know from that Torah that there are times when our soul is expansive and other times when our soul is shortened or contracted. Look at Bamidbar, Parshat Chukat, chapter 21, where the children of Israel are detoured away from Canaan and back through the wilderness. They become disconcerted and restless. They complain again that they have been brought from Egypt to die. They could have stayed and dined on figs, pomegranates and grapes – all of which were not likely the food of slaves. No matter, these wanderers are more concerned with the foods they desire, than accepting God’s good guidance toward a promised land. The text tells us
וַתִּקְצַ֥ר נֶֽפֶשׁ־הָעָ֖ם בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃
Literally, the soul of the people shortened along the way. With their shortened souls, their exasperation and desperation, they were unable to sense beyond their own needs. They were too concerned with personal comfort and not enough with God’s greater plan. They complained bitterly. God sent snakes to bite them and then a remedy, a snake raised high on a stick.
We recall from Genesis that the snake represents the evil tongue that spoke deceptively. The mouths that complained bitterly enfeebled the efforts and would have wrecked the enterprise of the Jewish people to claim their homeland.
But the tongue that speaks evil is the same that can speak truth and justice. And the image of the snake, that same snake that brings poisonous attack, could also be the source of healing. And it is that same image that is the emblem of the American Medical Association.
And so we learn from this episode that the mouths that complained, that were used for destruction could also be used for constructive purposes. And the complaining, defeated people have a shortened soul.
What has happened to the soul of America and American Jews? Has it expanded to meet our greatest potential for good or has it been cut short and contracted by a people who complain for the sake of their own self-interest?
In past years, I would say that the soul of our people has been shortened, contracted. We have focused on advancement for our selves and our families. We have demanded greater comforts, plucking the fruits of this land, and leaving greater disparity behind. And our vigilance for a world of cooperation, obligation, relationship and justice has waned. Advocacy – showing up for peace, justice and equality - has often been replaced by check writing. Until now. Now, in 2018, it seems as if our souls are lengthening again and expanding.
It took time coming but 2018 may very well be a year of expanding souls like 1918 bringing the world an accord for peace (albeit temporary) and like 1968 with its radical awakening of the public and individual initiative to improve the world. It just took some horrific events in 2018 to rouse the souls in us.
The zero tolerance immigration policy that has resulted in the separation of undocumented children from their parents at the US Mexico border is a gross violation of all manner of justice and compassion. It is tantamount to child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and contrary to all we hold to be holy, no matter what scriptures the Attorney General might cite. And the people of this country are responding, in person, in kind, with money and with advocacy. Representatives on Capitol Hill are reporting an outcry from across the country against such barbaric behavior. In the national debate over immigration, it is worthwhile to remember that the status of immigrant residents is not peripheral to the Torah, but central to it, where the status of the stranger is mentioned dozens of times.
The gun violence in this country has robbed us of young, beautiful lives. At Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, the students did not merely run from the building for their lives, they ran to the streets and Capitols for all our lives, advocating for an end to easy access to guns and controls to end gun violence. And then hundreds of thousands of us followed them into the streets as well. Leviticus 19 teaches us you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.
We heard the stories of women who have been degraded and exploited by men in power. Doctors, movie moguls, politicians and businessmen who abused women are being pushed from their roles and made pariahs in society. Men can no longer boast about what they grab with impunity. #METOO has transformed the American Culture. In torah we learn of the equality of the sexes, as it says “Male and female God created them. And he blessed them and called them ‘Human’ when they were created.”
We have seen attempts to ban transsexuals from the military or deny gay couples a wedding cake. Old prejudices die slowly and once again the Bible is used to support bigotry. Instead, in solidarity and resistance, all people are fighting for a world and a future where everyone values the lives and well being of LGBTQ people. This is Pride month, a demonstration of celebrating each of us as respected individuals. Danica Roem began serving in Virginia’s legislature this year as an openly trans person. And corporate America gets it when the sign in Bloomingdales says we celebrate pride this month and every month. And we give full honor to the text in Genesis 1:27 “So God created humanity in God’s image.”
It has been 50 years since 1968 when America expanded its soul. 2018 should be that kind of year. 50 years is an almost magical number in our tradition. In a few weeks we will read about the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year in a cycle that brings freedom, justice and peace.
How can you make 2018 a year of soul expansion for us, for this country and for the world?
Get active, Get involved. Do what is inconvenient, like the rabbis I know planning trips to greet children at detention centers.
Do what takes effort, like voter registration drives and campaigning for candidates who share our values.
Wear out the soles of your shoes. And keep growing your soul, the one that God placed in you. When the soul is activated, we can see our way to the Promised Land and we are ready to march – even if the route is circuitous, even if we forfeit some of our luxuries, even if it takes away from our own comfort.
And the results may not come right away. Change takes time. We have come to expect instant gratification and one stop shopping. We became insular wanting everything our way from our hamburgers to our spiritual experiences. Instant gratification and entitlement got us into this current mess, as we insulated ourselves from the needs of others in our communities, our country and this world.
But each demonstration is a leg of a journey, not a victory march. Each call to your congressman is a conversation, and not a task completed. Each person registered is another vote and not yet a landslide.
And when you are tired and want to retreat to the comforts of your life - Remember the cries of those refugee children separated from parents. Remember wailing of the parents who have lost children to gun violence. Remember the pain of the women whose lives have been altered by sexual abuse.
Some quote scripture to support their unholy designs. I want to quote Psalm 119, as inspiration for us all. Eit laasot ladonai, . . . its time to do for God for they have violated God’s teaching, it is time to act for the Lord, even if we have to flip the Torah over.
עֵת, לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהוָה-- הֵפֵרוּ, תּוֹרָתֶךָ.
Being good is commendable but only when we are doing good is it useful.
I offer a portion of a prayer whose author is Rabbi Rachel Bearman.
I pray that we will be like Eve, who was willing to risk her safe existence in order to pursue knowledge.
I pray that we will be like Abraham and Sarah, who hurried to welcome strangers into their camp and rushed to prepare a meal for them.
I pray that we will be like Rebekah, who was judged as remarkable because of her kindness to a traveler.
I pray that we will be like Shifra and Puah, who refused to follow the commands of their ruler when he ordered them to deal cruelly with the mothers and children of a vulnerable people.
I pray that we will be like Reuel/Yitro, who encountered a wanderer fleeing from his home, brought him into his community, and treated him like family.
I pray that we will be like Caleb, who refused to accept the pessimism of his fellow leaders and who clung to his certainty that the future could be safer, brighter, and better.
I pray that we will be like Rahab, who hid strangers in her home when they were sought by those who wanted to harm them.
I pray that we will be like Abraham and Moses, who stood toe-to-toe with the power of the universe and confronted injustice with loud voices and sure hearts.
I pray that we will remember Rabbi Akivah’s teaching that the heart of the Torah, the verse at the center of the scroll and at the center of the Jewish tradition, is Leviticus 19:18 which says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is my prayer for all of us and for all those who hold the Bible as a sacred text.
May this be God’s will. May it be our will. Amen.
Evan J. Krame
The path from enslavement does not end at freedom but rather at responsibility. As Victor Frankl said, the Statue of Liberty on the east coast should be balanced with a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast. This is the legacy of the Jewish experience, finding meaning in suffering and working to improve the world.