We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor —I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.
Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.