Obligation & Volunteerism

In social justice work, can we simultaneously reach a broad audience while ensuring participants are there for the right reasons?

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Parashat Vayikra imparts a deep sense of how integral the tradition of sacrifice was to the Israelite community. The ritual served many purposes: it was a means of celebration and thanksgiving, as well as a step in the process of expiation for sins. No matter his or her means, every community member was expected to make individual sacrifices and to participate in communal offerings (Leviticus 5:11).
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Yet it is clear from commentaries and the writings of the prophets that not everyone agreed about who should make sacrifices. Take the prophet Micah, for example:

“With what shall I approach the Lord, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?...He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8).

Though Micah does not reject sacrifices entirely, he, like many other prophets, believes that the act of making a sacrifice accomplishes nothing if one does not lead a righteous life. According to Micah and the other prophets, if a person’s heart is in the wrong place, if one’s intentions are tainted, God doesn’t want the sacrifice offered. This principle sharply limits the number of people who would participate.

A Familiar Tension

Yet many Israelites felt that sacrifices should be obligatory. They felt that broad participation was important, and struggled to engage their whole community in these rites. They believed that those who did not feel compelled to participate on their own needed to be pushed to do so.

Rashi highlights the tension between coercing participants and preferring that they offer sacrifices willingly in his analysis of the phrase “He shall bring it” (Leviticus 1:3). Rashi explains that this means “they must coerce him until he says 'I am willing.'”

This tension is familiar to us today as we try to engage our communities in work for social justice: how can we simultaneously reach a broad audience while ensuring participants are there for the right reasons?

We want volunteers and supporters to take action because they feel morally compelled, because they are committed with pure hearts. Yet there are times when action is necessary despite one’s motives: in building a movement, we need a broad base of support and simply do not have the same power as individuals as we do as a collective. So we play up the social aspects of a rally, encourage people to attend even if they aren’t yet committed to the cause.

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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.