Prioritizing Obligations

The importance of a holistic approach to halakhah.

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We can draw inspiration from the holistic ideal of halakhah in our work for global justice. Instead of approaching each issue separately, we should explore the ways in which injustices are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

For example, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is not an isolated problem of people dying from a disease. The spread of HIV is exacerbated by the social stigma that accompanies it, which prevents governments from taking timely action and deters individuals from undergoing testing.

Pervasive lack of access to healthcare and prevention methods among marginalized populations further contribute to the spread of the disease. HIV/AIDS is also intrinsically linked to poverty: families get poorer when wage earners sicken, and economic growth slows in many countries as workforces are decimated by the disease.

So too in the education system: the loss of teachers to HIV/AIDS results in lower academic achievement levels, higher drop-out rates, and lower child literacy rates.

Responding to such an interconnected problem requires a holistic approach, not the selection of some factors over others. Responding effectively to HIV/AIDS requires improving roads and other forms of infrastructure in rural communities so that people can safely travel to clinics. It involves training health workers to teach communities how to prevent HIV transmission, reducing gender-based violence, and challenging the stigma that surrounds the disease.

Peter Piot, former Executive Director of UNAIDS, the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, articulates the necessity of understanding the HIV/AIDS pandemic in its larger context: "It is patently clear that we need to make real headway against the fundamental drivers of this epidemic, especially gender inequality, stigma and discrimination, deprivation and the failure to protect and realize human rights. This challenge is perhaps the greatest of all those facing the AIDS response."

Later in Parashat Ekev, Moses again reminds the Israelites of the importance of keeping the commandments: "You shall faithfully observe all the commandment [mitzvah, singular] that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive" (Deuteronomy 8:1).

The 18th century Italian commentator Ohr HaChaim explains this curious use of the singular: "Moses admonishes the people and uses the singular ‘mitzvah’ as if to say that our relationship to all of the rules in the Torah should be as if to one single commandment."

This conflation of the laws should serve as a lesson to us in our pursuit of global justice, reminding us to contextualize individual issues and seek solutions that account for interlocking systems. Through this approach, let us merit Moses' blessing that we, and all of humanity, may thrive.

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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.