A Social Action Month: Heshvan

Imagine doing good the other 11 months.

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But Seriously

Okay--enough with the funny business. It's not so hard to mock something like Jewish Social Action Month. The idea that that we, as Jews, could sequester our pursuit of justice into a 30-day-long spasm of activism and then move on to some other flavor-of-the-month is a bit silly. It would be similarly hard to advance a serious case for designating a tefillah (prayer) month or a Torah week.

Yet there is a function to this foolishness.

As we emerge from a month of High Holiday celebration, we are reminded of Judaism's revolutionary way of navigating time. On the one hand, we revisit the same holidays every year--we hear the shofar blast, re-confront our limitations and failings through teshuvah (repentance), commemorate the annual harvest season, and rewind the Sefer Torah to begin telling our people's story again. Through these rituals, we live inside an ever-repeating, cyclical time.

Judaism is not, however, a religion of endless repetition and stasis--we left behind that fatalistic and stagnant notion of time when we rejected Egypt with its infinitely repeating flooding of the Nile and its omnipotent god-king Pharaoh. The fall hagim (holidays) also embody a deep commitment to progress. Rosh Hashanah reminds us not just that the cycle of life repeats, but that time is always moving forward--5768 years and counting since creation. The booths of Sukkot are not only the harvest huts of our farmer forebears; they also represent the dwellings that sheltered our ancestors during their 40-year journey from oppression to liberation, a journey whose work for us remains ongoing.

This juxtaposition of cyclical time and linear, teleological time creates something of a spiral. We perform the same rituals and read the same texts each year. But each year, we bring new ideas and new perspectives to those same texts, and they engage us differently. Each year we are different, hopefully better, people, allowing us to circle back in ways that feel forward-moving, even though we may find ourselves confronting the same challenges. And each year, we can use our revisiting of the messages and values central to these holidays to more tightly integrate their practices, like teshuvah, into our identities year round.

So how can we use Jewish Social Action Month to inspire us and invigorate within us a commitment to social justice that will carry us through the entire year?

Choosing One Thing

While Jewish Social Action Month may be far too limited a charge, taking on all of the injustices in the world is broad to the point of overwhelming. So this year, during Heshvan, choose one thing, one injustice about which you feel passionate, and commit to working that issue for the next 12 months.

And the truth is, it almost doesn't matter what you choose. If your children are moved by the suffering of animals, make animal rights your family's year-long project. If you're outraged by the situation in Darfur, focus on that until next Hesvhan. If the status of immigrants in your community or the national debate on immigration policy speaks to you, dig in on that.

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Aaron Dorfman

Aaron Dorfman is the Director of Jewish Education at American Jewish World Service. Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed a three-year Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.