As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.
At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:
“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”
In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.
So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?
Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.
I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.
“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”
We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.
Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.
Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest. Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.
I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:
Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no pardons,
before the concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.
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“Where do we start?”
That’s a question I hear often from groups of people seeking to make an impact in their community. I can’t ever say I have the answer but I often suggest looking at the data and studying the community’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.
Kids Count just released data from 50 states that ranks each state according to the well-being of families and children in the state. The state I live in, Mississippi, is on the bottom of that list—and not for the first time.
As someone who works in community engagement, teaming up with Jewish congregations and other committed partners to make meaningful and sustainable change, reports like this are important. They can also be disheartening. So when we are presented with data, we ask again: “Where do we start?”
Luckily, the data itself can help guide our tikkun olam efforts.
Jamie Bardwell, Program Director at the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi (an organization that has supported the ISJL’s peer mediation program, T.A.P.) points out that advancing in ranks requires that interconnected indicators are simultaneously addressed. In other words, to alleviate poverty, we cannot focus solely on job training for single mothers, or better education for their children, or access to affordable child care; we must work on all of these interconnected indicators of poverty.
One thing to point out is that there is hope. Even while Mississippi is ranked lowest, there is evidence of some improvement. And while we know we have our work cut out for us, we can use this data to create benchmarks. For example, Mississippi ranks 50th in the economic well-being of children. A total of 256,000 children, or 35% of all children living in Mississippi, live in poverty. As a starting point, what would it take to get us from 50th up to 49th in children’s poverty?
New Mexico currently sits at 49th with 29% of their children living in poverty. That means, if we can move approximately 43,000 children out of poverty, we could move up in our rankings. This might still seem daunting, but the data provides us with benchmarks and goals to strive toward. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce child poverty to 0% and that is an important goal to keep in mind. But, the data can help us push our state to move ahead in increments.
Have you looked at the data released about your state? Is there anything that surprised you? Are you and your congregation helping to move the needle in your state? If you are, please share what you are doing!
Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
When I opened a recent daily e-mail from The Jewish Daily Forward, that’s what author J.J. Goldberg invited me to do.
Reading the headline, “Why We Should Honor Slain Civil Rights Workers With Jewish Holiday,” my instinct was to feel skeptical. We’ve already got the High Holidays, three festivals, Chanukah, Purim, Tu Bish’vat, days devoted to the state of Israel and the Holocaust, minor fast days, and 52 Shabbatot every year. We have the Omer count, the month of Elul, and the 9 days leading up to Tisha B’av – periods of time that, while not quite holidays, are additional times of year already marked with meaning.
We need another holiday now?
The headline startled me a little and confused me even more. But then I did what I probably should have done right away. I read the article. It turns out that Goldberg might just be onto something.
I won’t spell out all of the specific points of the article, but I will hone in on one portion, where Goldberg describes a large group of modern-day Jews – those who connect to Judaism largely because they believe that it relates issues of social justice. Furthermore, he explains, these people are often not connecting with Jewish institutions – despite the fact that many of them feel a passionate connection to their Jewish identities.
He asks a vital question about this sub-section of the Jewish people. “How can the Jewish community approach them, when its agendas, institutions and even calendar so little resemble their Judaism?”
Many Jewish texts, including our most holy, contain ideas that many in this modern-day cohort would love. Environmental ethics can be found all over the Torah. Anti-war activists need look no farther than the book of Isaiah’s cry to beat our swords into ploughshares. Texts in the Mishnah can be linked to Transgender equality today.
But there’s a problem with this. The aforementioned sub-section of Jews likely isn’t just picking up the book of Isaiah or a tractate of Mishnah on a regular basis. There needs to be an entry point. An occasion where the Jewish community collectively trumpets from its synagogues and community centers that this tradition exists. That social justice has long been a part of our tradition, and, God-willing, will still be for centuries to come.
We cannot and should not conclude that social justice and Judaism are the same. They are not. In addition to the above examples, there are real elements of the Jewish tradition that challenge, or even directly contradict, many liberal pre-dispositions. Sometimes those of us who are liberal overlook that vital truth, and to do so is a mistake.
But, if done thoughtfully, a Jewish holiday recognizing our historic connection to issues of social justice could be a vital tool as we look for ways to engage this group of Jews. It could be the perfect entry point for those who care about Social Justice and their Jewish identity, but have not yet learned how to blend those two passions into one.
So today, 16th of Tammuz (July 14th), I’m taking JJ Goldberg’s advice, and celebrating those links that exist between Jewish tradition and values of social justice. I’ll be balancing a look back at the past with a gaze into the future. I’ll take some time to reflect on the murders of three civil rights workers in my very own state of Mississippi, and, more positively, on the incredible work that was done in the aftermath of their deaths. As I look forward, I’ll be thinking about steps that I can take, as a Jew and as a human being, to minimize the possibility of similar crimes from being committed today or in the future.
I invite you to join me.