The Intimate Connection Between Social Responsibility and Spirituality

(I delivered this drasha in Kehilat Tzur Hadassah, Yom Kippur 5777)

I spoke last year about the imperative of pluralism, of acceptance, and tolerance, and I called for us to act.  A number of us gathered to discuss these issues throughout the holiday and on into the year.  So, the good news is that we have done some wonderful things in the past year:

  • The friendship of members of our congregation and Kehilat HaTzur va’HaTzohar (Orthodox) has led to new initiatives like co-sponsorship of this recent blood drive which brought a record number of donors
  • In the shadow of the past year’s “knife intifada”, we began working to raise our awareness about some of Tzur Hadassah’s closest neighbors. We have opened an Arabic course to begin to try to literally understand.  We are exploring possibilities of encounters/dialogues to help so many of us who have never met a Palestinian, and Palestinians who have never met an Israeli who is not a soldier to hear with our own ears, and know for ourselves the different narratives. (And on the table are thoughts of a dialogue with our neighbors in Beitar Ilit)
  • We marched as a delegation of Kehilat Tzur Hadassah and Noar Telem in this year’s Gay Pride Parade. We joined over 10,000 people (the usual number of participants is 2000) of every possible religious background, age, and gender persuasion to make the largest, most beautiful statement about love and understanding that I perhaps have been a part of.
  • We host Jewish groups and individuals and non-Jewish tourists from all over the world in our community, explaining to them about our tradition and showing them a warm, welcoming Israeli Judaism.

These are great initiatives, and I send a big yishar koach to the organizers and the participants.  I am sure that everyone here does good things in their lives.  But this is the hour of cheshbon nefesh, a personal accounting. I especially ask myself – as I ask all of us to do –  Am I really doing all that I can?  I have some dilemmas, but perhaps they will resonate with you.

Almost every day, I see the horrifying pictures of the destruction in Syria, and the heart wrenching stories of the refugees, Especially the children.  It is estimated that over 400,000 people have been killed, 4 million have fled as refugees, and 6 million are displaced within Syria.

In North America , there are Jewish communities adopting Syrian refugee families.  I know we are in a complicated position as Israelis – Syria is Israel’s enemy!  We can say that our government provides humanitarian aid to Syrians.  We can join the efforts of an organization called Amaliah that is helping to coordinate Israeli humanitarian efforts.

And then, as happened this Sunday in Jerusalem, there is a terror attack, which hurts so badly.  And the talkbacks begin: Don’t help Arabs, they just want to kill us.  Anyone who helps an Arab is a hater of Israel.

The reason not to help: They are not my people.

I received a call last week from a man in Beit Shemesh.  He was asking for financial help with a long list of personal tragedies.  I asked, What about your community?  He said, they are busy raising money for the synagogue building.  I call his rabbi.  He verifies the situation, describing the man as someone who tries very hard.  The welfare system is not helping this family enough.  Any help that can be given would be a blessing.  I talk it over with our congregant who has been spearheading our efforts to help those in need as a community.  She said, “This is hard because it is out of our area/demographic.”  We decide that we will make a general appeal to people to give tzedakah, (You are welcome to leave tzedakah in the kupah) and we will try our contacts in Beit Shemesh to find someone who can be in a better position to help.

The reason not to help: This person is not my neighbor.

We are in touch with the regional council’s social workers responsible for the Mazleg.  We ask them what they need help with, and then we as a community decide what we are capable of doing.  Over the past six months, we supported as a congregation a single-mother by providing weekly meals.  We invited the local schools (and our Gan Tiltan!) to participate in food collection for needy families in Mateh Yehudah, providing boxes and publicity and coordinating pick up.  When I spoke at a local classroom this month whose pupils spearheaded their school’s food drive, and really when I speak with any group, they are always shocked when I tell them there are people in Tzur Hadassah who are struggling to put food on the table.

The reason not to help: I don’t know my neighbors.

Why have I shared all of this when our topic chosen this year is Spirituality?  What does social responsibility have to do with spirituality?  Everything.

Spirituality is about connectedness.  It’s what tells me I am part of something greater than myself.  There are a number of things which are greater than me – my tradition, my ancestors, humanity, creation, and G-d/Divine force.  The G-d that I believe in is the greater force encompassing humanity, this world, and the universe.  This force runs through all of us, through all of the world.

My credo is: G-d is one.  One is all.  All is G-d.  This is connection – we are all part of a unified whole, and it is what tells me that caring is my obligation – for my neighbor, my fellow Jews, the other peoples with whom we share this land, people around the world that I will never meet. For me, spirituality is celebrating the uniqueness of the separate parts and recognizing them as part of the whole. 

When I was a child, I was taught for the first time a concept called Tikkun Olam, which has become the guiding principle in my life.  I remember as an eight-year-old, instead of regular classes, my synagogue brought us all to rally to free Soviet Jewry, telling us to call out “Let my people go!”  Every Rosh HaShanah, they gave us empty supermarket bags, and on Yom Kippur we brought the bags back full with food to donate to the needy.  At the time, I didn’t fully understand what we were doing, but the experiences planted the seeds for these values.

What is Tikkun Olam?  Actually, it is a very spiritual concept.  The origin of the term in the Talmud.  In certain instances when a ruling was made that might go against general principles, the reason given was מפני תיקון העולם – for the “better ordering of society.”  Meaning, sometimes we do things just because they are the right thing, not connected to the Torah itself.

According to Isaac Luria, (the Kabbalist) in Tzfat in the 16th century, Tikkun Olam is an inherent part of creation.  He tells that G-d created the world by retracting the light that filled the universe into one point in the middle.  The light spilled into vessels he called the Sefirot.  The bottom sefirot, closest to humanity, could not contain the light and they exploded (a la Big Bang?), mixing up “good” and “evil”.  Thus was created the task of humanity to do Tikkun Olam, by doing good we bring good to the world.

Action is shaped by consciousness.  I find the balance in the principle of (Pirke Avot 1:2), “The world stands on three things – Torah, worship, and loving kindness.”  I quote this text all the time.

“Torah” is study and ongoing discussion of texts and tradition – in the widest sense of the words – alone and with others.  The Talmud teaches that G-d’s presence of the Shechina rests even on two people who are engaged in Torah study together.  Thinking ignites the sparks of the synapses in the brain.  I leave every study session energized.

” Worship” is contemplative communing – sometimes guided by the themes of the prayerbook, sometimes uplifted by melodies and music, sometimes lost in thought.  The moments of thanks and petition, and mainly the opportunity to consider this entire miraculous and challenging existence. Or just to sit quietly and breathe.  Prayer was not meant to be a yoke or a burden!  Let us reclaim it for ourselves and return to the essence of prayer.

“Loving kindness” is the result and the action, caring for my fellow creatures and creation.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel said as he marched with Martin Luther King for civil rights of Black Americans, “I pray with my feet.”  As the Jewish-French philosopher Emanuel Levinas claims, Our existence is wholly to feel my responsibility for the other and to do so with a positive approach.  (Levinas, p. 95)

Therefore, today on this time that we aspire to renewal and self-improvement, I humbly suggest that: Every day, we try to learn something new.  Every day, we try to find a moment of contemplation.  Every day, we find a way to give to others – whether it is for our neighbors, for our people and our land, or if it for the rest of humanity and our world.  I, for my part, will also try to identify opportunities, suggest thoughts, and support your initiatives.

Maybe you noticed this shell necklace that I am wearing.  I collected the shells last week before we performed Tashlich at the beach.  I made this necklace with my daughter. I find that I can’t get  myself to take it off.  Wearing it, I retain the feeling of being near the sea, which connects to the spirit of these ten days of repentance –  the vastness of nature over which humans cannot triumph.  The waves which also lap shores of other lands and wash over other people I do not know.  The waves who are influenced by the gravitational pull of the moon.

Elie Wiesel, one of the illustrious souls who left us this year, Holocaust survivor, international lecturer and outspoken humanitarian, including his repeated cries to the world to help make a solution Syria, said, “Indifference creates evil. My humanity derives from my efforts with others.”

In conclusion, not an answer but rather a question.  As Hillel put it best: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, who am I?  And if not now, when?

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