Thursday, November 19, 2009

Testing, Testing... The Ongoing Lessons of Avraham Aveinu, Part Two

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof! צדק צדק תרדף

Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue! With these words, the prophet reminds us through the ages of our existence of what it is that Judaism and Jewish observance is to bring us to in our own lives. Social justice is the way of Jewish living and observance according to many, in spite of what we may too often observe around us. Our family has identified an important Rav of our choosing in Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, for his consistent emphasis of this very point. He continues to articulate that to be a religious Jew, a Shomer Mitzvot, it is not a question of whether or not one is concerned about the well being of those around him; rather, we are metzuvim, that is commanded, to be so involved. As I have often said, how can I accept the Mitzvah of Shiluach Kan and not show love and concern for my neighbor, notwithstanding those who hold by the notion that we are to send the mother bird from the nest precisely because G-d told us to and not out of any sense of compassion. I prefer to read this teaching as G-d commands us to be compassionate, so that we will not decide not to be so! How can I be so particular about what goes in my mouth in observing the laws of Kashrut and not be as meticulous about what comes out of my mouth in my speech and observe the laws connected to Shmirat HaLashon, guarding my language, in my attempt to build relationships and community while healing the world in a real and tangible manner.

In Rabbi Sacks’ wonderful book, To Heal A Fractured World (United States: Schocken Books, 2005), this is a theme that resonates. He presents the notion that instead of seeing Judaism as a religion of pure obedience and submission to the will of G-d, we as human beings, and specifically as Jews, should take the charge of choosing to act in such a way as to emulate G-d who shows such just behaviors. He quotes one of my favorite texts of Gemara from Sotah 14 a(p. 46), that explains as follows in teaching how we emulate G-d and bring G-d into this world through such actions:

R. Hamma son of R. Haninah said, What does it mean in the Torah when it says “You shall walk after the Lord your G-d? (Devarim 13:5)” How is it possible for a human being to walk after G-d? Doesn’t the Torah say, “The Lord your G-d is a consuming fire? (Devarim 4:24)” Rather, this means, “you should emulate the attributes of the Holy One Blessed is G-d.” Just as G-d clothes the naked, as it says, “And G-d made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them (Bereshit 3:21)”; you too shall clothe the naked. Just as G-d visits the sick when “G-d appeared to Avram by Elonei Mamre (Bereshit 18:1)”, you too shall visit the sick. Just as G-d comforts the mourners as when “After the death of Avraham, G-d blessed his son Yitzchak (Bereshit 25:11),” so you too shall comfort mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be G-d buries the dead as when “G-d buried Moshe in the valley (Devarim 34:6),” you shall also bury your dead.

I have taught this text so many times to so many groups because I believe it captures the most fundamental of underlying principles that motivates G-d to give us a system of mitzvot to structure our lives as well as the most profound reason for us to follow them.

We call Avraham our father, as Avraham Aveinu. Why this appellation? To be sure many reasons are given. I always point to the following text from Bereshit 18: 18 – 19 as the reason, in which G-d makes a promise and gives the reason for the promise.

יח וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ־ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ: יט כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָֹה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו:

Avraham will be a great and mighty nation and all of the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. Because it is known that he will command his children and the members of his household after him, and they will guard and observe the ways of G-d, to do deeds of righteousness and justice in order that G-d will fulfill all that G-d has said on behalf of Avraham.

The people that come from Avraham and the generations afterwards, the Jewish people, if you will, earn the blessing that is given to Avraham precisely because they are to follow Avraham’s ways of Tzedakah u’Mishpat, welcoming guests as Avraham did, and doing so many other things as G-d does as indicated above. These are deeds of Social Justice.

Years ago, as a fun diversion, I along with a group of colleagues took a silly scan of our religious beliefs on some computer program. We answered a group of questions about belief in G-d, understandings of the beginnings of our Universe as we know it, ritual observances and practices concerning how we feel about the people around us and social justice. Upon completing this comical survey (which actually was not so bad, as computer surveys go), a group of us who are clearly in the Orthoprax/Orthodox range were identified as 100% Reform Jews. We were fascinated by this phenomenon and compared our answers to those amongst us who were “correctly” identified as Orthodox. What was the difference? It was so clear – those of us who were “liberal” (which I question in and of itself regarding what was the criteria that led to this identity) believed in the rights of others, social justice and our responsibility to be concerned for all of those in the family of humanity. Now, a flip computer program can identify me however it wants; I promise I will not lose sleep over this. The problem is that many people in our own community of Shomrei Mitzvot do so as well. This is what keeps me from getting needed sleep at night.

So, thank you Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for supporting my family and our understanding that aiding prisoners as they come back out into the world after serving their sentences as our daughter Rachie is presently doing in New Orleans is part of our imperative to repair the world and free prisoners as Shomrei Mitzvot. Working to provide medical care to underserved populations as our daughter Talie plans to do even if it means not living where there is a critical mass of observant Jews is because of what she has taken on as a responsibility along with strict observance of Kashrut, Shabbat, Tziniut, and so much else.

We have taught our children to live in the ways of Avraham Aveinu, welcoming all guests into our home and lives, fighting for injustices in poorly equipped societies and so much else. These are the lessons of our father, Avraham and G-d, whom he taught us to serve.

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