Author Archives: Alana Alpert

Alana Alpert

About Alana Alpert

After receiving rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in June 2014, Alana will serve as the Rabbi/Organizer of Project Micah in Detroit, an exciting collaboration between Congregation T'chiyah and the Harriet Tubman Center. A trained community organizer, educator, and service-learning facilitator, she has worked in a number of Jewish and interfaith social justice organizations. She is passionate about the intersections of spiritual practice and social change.

Prioritizing Obligations

In Parashat Ekev, Moses reflects on the journey through the wilderness and prepares the Israelites for their transition into a new life of responsibility in the Promised Land. He begins, “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that God swore to your ancestors” (Deuteronomy 7:12). The Hebrew word used for “heed” is the parashah‘s namesake, “Ekev,” which also means “heel.” A midrash proposes that the use of this word conveys a double-meaning:AJWS Logo

“The verse shows us that even those righteous deeds which a person takes lightly, like things of no value trodden underfoot, these commandments too should be kept. One should not weigh the commandments and say: “This is an important commandment and I will fulfill it, and this is a small one and I will ignore it.”

Arguing against the very human impulse to develop a hierarchy of responsibilities, this midrash warns us not to assign relative importance to the range of obligations that demand our attention and response.

Prioritizing Social Justice Work

This desire to prioritize feels especially familiar when we face the enormity of social justice work. We experience the frustrating gap between the resources of an individual or organization and the overwhelming amount of suffering in the world, and so we create our own idiosyncratic systems to somehow make the impossible decisions about how to allocate our limited resources.

We establish systems of triage based on who we feel is hungriest, sickest, or most lacking in educational opportunity. Or perhaps our attention is due to a special relationship to an issue: we know someone affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic or we have seen first-hand the devastation wrought by a hurricane. We decide which issues are “our” issues, deserving of our attention, and we ignore others.

The midrash seems to imply that it is hubristic to make such judgments about relative value. Who am I to say that grassroots organizations providing vocational work for rural women are any less important than clinics treating malaria? Especially in the context of global justice, when human lives are at stake, asserting that one issue is more important than another feels especially arrogant.

Rerouting Goals

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The episode of the twelve spies sent to scout the Land of Canaan leaves the generation of recently-freed Israelites farther away from the Promised Land than they have ever been. The Israelites believe the report of ten of the spies that the Land is filled with giants against whom they could not prevail.

AJWS LogoGod punishes them severely for this demonstration of lack of faith, telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they will never enter the Promised Land: “Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert” (Numbers 14:33) The news of this devastating detour throws the community into mourning and panic.

In movements for social change, we often experience such demoralizing setbacks: The champion of our bill loses re-election. Civil liberties it took decades to win are eroded instantly by a single court decision. A visionary leader is assassinated.

Such a setback was experienced by the campaign to stop the Narmada River Dam Project in central India–a highly contested megaproject consisting of 30 hydroelectric dams that threatened the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Indians living along the Narmada River.

This project, funded by The World Bank, attracted tremendous criticism by environmentalists and by advocates of the large numbers of people who would be displaced by rising river waters upstream. A grassroots movement formed to halt the dam, organized by the NGO Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The movement’s actions led to an unprecedented reversal, and the Bank’s participation in the project was cancelled in 1995. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy describes the magnitude of this grassroots victory in The Greater Common Good: “No one has ever managed to make The World Bank step back from a project before. Least of all a rag-tag army of the poorest people in one of the world’s poorest countries.”

The Instinct to Hoard

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Tzedakah can seem unnatural: we never want to give up what we have. When we have a lot, we say, “It’s mine–I worked hard for it and I want to keep it.” When we don’t have a lot or are worried that we won’t, we say, “It’s mine–I need it, so I can’t give it away.” The instinct to hoard is common, and the Torah goes out of its way to urge against it. american jewish world service

In the middle of a discussion about the festivals, Parashat Emor repeats the mitzvah we learned last week in Parashat Kedoshim: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

Why would these verses, repeated almost verbatim, reappear in the midst of laws about the festivals? Scholar Nehama Leibowitz explains that the festivals–marking the completion of the harvest season–are a particularly joyous time, and in joy we might forget the poor. Indeed, the jubilation and pride we feel at a successful planting season may lend itself to a strong sense of entitlement akin to our response to tzedakah in a time of plenty: I worked hard for this harvest and I want to keep it.

The Land is Not Yours

Rabbi Moshe Alshech, a 16th century commentator from Safed, offers a radical reading of the verse, “and when you reap the harvest of your land,” that dispels the myth of ownership that underlies this instinct to hoard. He points out that “your land” is plural, explaining that “the Torah uses the plural to designate the common ownership of the field by the owner, the poor, and the stranger, for in truth, they share in it.” He says:

“Do not think that you are giving to the poor from your own possession, or that I despised the poor person by not giving him as I gave you. For he is my son, as you are, and his share is in your grain; it is to your benefit to give him his share from your property.”

Obligation & Volunteerism

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Parashat Vayikra imparts a deep sense of how integral the tradition of sacrifice was to the Israelite community. The ritual served many purposes: it was a means of celebration and thanksgiving, as well as a step in the process of expiation for sins. No matter his or her means, every community member was expected to make individual sacrifices and to participate in communal offerings (Leviticus 5:11).
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Yet it is clear from commentaries and the writings of the prophets that not everyone agreed about who should make sacrifices. Take the prophet Micah, for example:

“With what shall I approach the Lord, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?…He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8).

Though Micah does not reject sacrifices entirely, he, like many other prophets, believes that the act of making a sacrifice accomplishes nothing if one does not lead a righteous life. According to Micah and the other prophets, if a person’s heart is in the wrong place, if one’s intentions are tainted, God doesn’t want the sacrifice offered. This principle sharply limits the number of people who would participate.

A Familiar Tension

Yet many Israelites felt that sacrifices should be obligatory. They felt that broad participation was important, and struggled to engage their whole community in these rites. They believed that those who did not feel compelled to participate on their own needed to be pushed to do so.

Rashi highlights the tension between coercing participants and preferring that they offer sacrifices willingly in his analysis of the phrase “He shall bring it” (Leviticus 1:3). Rashi explains that this means “they must coerce him until he says ‘I am willing.’”

This tension is familiar to us today as we try to engage our communities in work for social justice: how can we simultaneously reach a broad audience while ensuring participants are there for the right reasons?

From Insecurity to Sovereignty

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In Parashat B’shalah the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. In the very same parashah, they are abruptly confronted with the seemingly mundane concerns of their desert society. The first of these earthly matters is food: liberation euphoria wears off quickly when food anxiety kicks in.
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Almost immediately after their escape from Egypt the Israelites experience what today we call “food insecurity.” Only three days after crossing the Red Sea they complain to Moses about a lack of water and shortly thereafter about a lack of food (Exodus 15:24 and 16:3).

The Israelites are so distraught that they proclaim they would rather have died in Egypt than experience freedom in this way. An overreaction, perhaps, but let’s consider just how frightening food insecurity might be, and in what ways it is akin to slavery. These oppressions share the quality of a lack of control, existence at the whim of outside forces.

In response to their anxieties about food, God explains to Moses that the Israelites will be provided with manna (the biblical version of food aid), saying: “I will rain down for them food from heaven, and the people will go out and collect a daily portion every day” (Exodus 16:4). That no one is able to take more or less than what they need allows for an egalitarian reading of this text, but the dependency the system of manna engenders is deeply problematic.

A System of Dependency

The students of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai ask him, “why did the manna not come down for the Israelites once a year [instead of every day]?” He answers that being forced to constantly wonder whether or not the manna will fall will cause them to feel dependent on God (Yoma 76b).

This system of dependency is replicated today in global food policy. The goal of most food aid is to help those who are hungry become “food secure,” an objective that would ensure a sufficient amount and quality of food for a given population. While providing food to people suffering from starvation is certainly necessary and important, policies that focus only on food security encourage recipient countries to remain dependent on that aid.

Self-Interest & Solidarity

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Over the course of the book of Genesis, we witness Jacob’s two different responses to the unjust massacre committed by Simon and Levi against the people of Shehem. After their sister Dinah is raped by the prince of Shehem, the brothers murder and pillage the entire town. While the rape of Dinah is indeed horrific, it does not justify the act of collective punishment her brothers pursue.

Jacob’s Reactions

When Jacob learns of Simon and Levi’s action, he bemoans: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perrizites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Genesis 34:30).

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In Parashat Vayehi, Jacob, on his deathbed, gathers his sons around him to hear his last words. When he reflects again on Simon and Levi, he admonishes them: “Simon and Levi, the brothers—weapons of outrage their trade. […]For in their fury they slaughtered men, at their pleasure they tore down ramparts.Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their wrath so remorseless!”(Genesis 49:5-7)

Jacob’s initial response to this injustice is personal. His concern with the deeds of Simon and Levi is that there will be repercussions for him and his community. Only later does he express anger that they have acted wrongly by killing innocent people.

Two Models

Just as Jacob’s two responses to the same issue are motivated by very different concerns, our activism on social justice issues can also be motivated by different factors. We can take action on these issues because we are personally affected, or we can act because we feel morally compelled. There is often debate in the world of community organizing as to how we should mobilize communities to combat injustice.

On the one hand, engaging people on the personal level on issues where they feel a direct impact, like health care or education, is an effective tactic. Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, championed this approach.

Transformative Encounters

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When I traveled to Ghana with AJWS during the summer of 2005, I was seeking a challenging experience. I hoped it would be an opportunity to learn, through mind and body, just a little bit about what it means to live in the Global South. I did not know just how challenging it would be; how it would force me to look at the world and myself differently; how painful it would be to see the injustice of poverty up close. Yet it is critical to seek out productive discomfort such as this, and to let the experience stay with us, change us and shape us, and lead us to action.  

american jewish world serviceJacob experiences such a life-changing encounter in Parashat Vayishlah. The night before his reconciliation with Esau, he finds himself alone and wrestles with a “man” whom the commentaries have commonly viewed to be an angel. The wrestling match is typically understood as an attack on Jacob by the angel, but Aviva Zornberg suggests that Jacob may have sought out the confrontation.

A Painful Encounter

Zornberg’s interpretation of Jacob as the instigator, stemming from a grammatical reading of the text, presents a radically different understanding of this mysterious scene: Jacob has left the comfort zone of his family and actively grapples with the unknown. The commentaries offer many interpretations for what this encounter means, but all agree that Jacob is fundamentally changed by it.

During their wrestling, the angel injures Jacob’s thigh. Some commentators say that he will always limp, and the pain stays with him the rest of his life. Jacob learns that it is not enough to have had this strange and intense experience. He says to the angel (Genesis 32:17), “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

The blessing he receives is a new name, one fitting to the experience: he will be called Israel “because [he] has striven with beings divine and human (Genesis 32:39).” Because of Jacob’s name change, his identity is now intertwined with this encounter and he becomes defined by it: as someone who “strives”–or struggles–with both the moral and the human.

Challenging the Heavens

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Parashat Vayera centers on a phenomenal moment in Jewish tradition: the negotiation between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. By all accounts, the people of the doomed city do not have a lot going for them. Ezekiel enumerates their sins, saying “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).

But Abraham fights for them, claiming that there must be some number of righteous people within the gates. He asks, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?…Far be it from you to do a thing like that!…Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:20-25).

american jewish world serviceAbraham challenges God. He advocates for the people of the city and for God’s own moral standing as a God of justice. Here Abraham demonstrates that he is iconoclastic, thwarting the traditional power dynamic between divine and devotee and bringing morality into the debate of action.

In a midrash, the rabbis characterize this remarkable interaction as prayer. Discussing the importance of kavanah mindfulness or intention–during prayer, the rabbis declare that Abraham is the highest exemplar. The midrash points to this story, saying “…And nobody had kavanah in their prayer like our father Abraham, which we see from the fact that he said: Far be it from you to do a thing like that!” (Midrash Tanhuma, Haye Sarah 1). What is it about this kind of hutzpah clappei shamayim, challenging the heavens–or what today we might call “speaking truth to power”–that the rabbis see as the ultimate spiritual expression?

Achieving Genuine Prayer

Genuine prayer requires a combination of openness and hutzpah–the strength of mind to honestly engage with what is within and around us, and the strength of imagination to see how it might be different. Abraham’s intense focus on approaching the world in this manner is a type of perpetual prayer. And in this case, he was able to push even God to do the same.