Prioritizing Obligations

The importance of a holistic approach to halakhah.

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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.

Holistic Approach

By cautioning us not to presume that we understand the value of any individual mitzvah, the midrash encourages us to accept a holistic system of halakhah and not a set of individual laws. If we resist the instinct to compartmentalize, categorize, and organize all the mitzvot, we find that they function in complementary ways, working together to enable lives with infinite potential for holiness, meaning, and justice.

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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.