Parashat B'ha'alotkha

Beyond Fear

Social Justice As A Sacred Communal Obligation

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The following article is reprinted with permission from

In an article entitled "Gemilut Hasadim [Doing Acts of Lovingkindness] is Not Social Action," Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf claims that many synagogue social action committees concern themselves not with their stated purpose, but with tzedakah (charity) projects, such as tutoring and stocking food pantries.

While these are worthy activities, the Torah repeatedly shows that social action demands more: It means attempting "profoundly controversial, deeply political, even world-historical" changes, in both the Jewish community and the larger society, which would ideally make such palliatives unnecessary.

The impulse to social action is rooted in our most sacred obligations. But carrying out that impulse can be daunting. Rabbi Wolf suspects that fear of splitting congregations, and of losing donations, is behind the unwillingness to "take up arms against poverty and injustice."

Social action does carry risks, as parashat B’ha’alotkha repeatedly points out. Yet it shows how a dedicated, mutually responsible group can come to grips with those risks by consciously confronting them.

protestersFacing a fear begins with naming it. Where we might be likely to hold a community discussion, our ancestors often used ritual to articulate both problems and solutions. In B’ha’alotkha, the adult men of the tribe of Levi are formally assigned the ritual functions which the people as a whole forfeited by worshipping the golden calf. Their initiation requires that they be treated like sacrificial animals: representatives of the tribes lay their hands on the heads of the Levi'im, thus symbolically transferring responsibility. Next, each Levi, in lieu of being offered on the altar, is lifted up in front of it.

By becoming sacrifices, the Levi'im graphically state their awareness that giving one's life to a sacred cause is dangerous. This remains true today: human rights and refugee workers, investigators of corrupt governments, organizers of opposition political parties in many countries, and organizers for unpopular causes in the United States take ill-paying jobs, live in dangerous areas, risk prison, face and sometimes meet death.

However, the initiation of the Levi'im is more than a collection of individual sacrifices; it symbolizes the entire tribe's commitment to a shared purpose. Further, this tribe has faced fear before, and demonstrated willingness to stand and fight together. Because they know they can count on each other, the people can count on them for effective, consistent action.

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Nina Wouk is an accountant who spends most of her free time serving on three ritual committees.