I had a painful wake-up call in Ghana last summer on an American Jewish World Service trip with fellow rabbis. At a center for children rescued from slavery, a boy grabbed my arm warmly and wouldn’t let go. He knew little English, but he smiled at me. He was 9 years old, just midway between the ages of my own two sons. I could see scars on his head and I knew it was typical for boys like him to be beaten and tortured as they labored on fishing boats. I imagined his parents, so desperately poor that they risked such a fate for their child in order to receive a one-time payment of $30 to $50; it seemed untenable to return to my daily life, where I regularly spend that on a single meal. Yet, like many before me, return I did.
While we live in a world with tremendous suffering, we usually push this truth to the periphery. We take for granted dramatic disparities in wealth; in the application of human rights; and even in access to the simplest of technologies, such as running water.
Torah and prayer should awaken us to the plight of poverty and injustice. We are commanded to meet the needs of the impoverished, to protect the weak, and to guard the rights of the enslaved. Yet most of us fail to heed either the letter of the law or the spirit of these commandments.
It is time to embrace the challenge of these commandments and to establish a brit emet, a covenant that asserts these truths. For some, this will mean choosing to step into a system of obligation; for others, it will mean prioritizing the search for justice with the same rigor as that of Shabbat observance. This covenant will bind us to a set of concrete and measurable practices rooted in the mitzvot.
While such a covenant could be manifest in countless ways, reverberating with every aspect of Jewish life, I propose that we begin with three core strategies:
1. Give more tzedakah. With nearly a billion people living in hunger and 50 percent of the world living on less than $2.50 a day, almost all of us can give more. Many of us treat the commandment to give 10 percent of our income to charity as a distant goal. Jewish tradition actually encourages us to aim for 20 percent. A family of four earning $47,500 and giving away 10 percent of their income would still be among the wealthiest 12 percent in the world. Our tzedakah should come before other core expenses, rather than as a discretionary item. If we do not feel a recognizable and meaningful feeling of “doing without,” then we are likely sacrificing less than what is proportionate to the call. Though this level of tzedakah may make us feel uncomfortable, it should also uplift us.
2. Consume less. Judaism is not an ascetic religion. Our tradition encourages us to appreciate the material pleasures of our world as a path to holiness. Yet it also recognizes that the material urge, when out of proportion, can lead to idolatry. Practices such as kashrut and fasting are meant to temper this urge and to remind us that we have the freedom to choose how we consume. These practices of partial or temporary renunciation could be expanded as a balance to the commercial bombardment of the message that a sense of wholeness is just one purchase away.
Too often, our desire for material objects, comforts, and wealth becomes a distraction in and of itself. And many of us may be guilty of ignoring the cost in human suffering that is a result of a consumer society in which much of what we buy — computers, clothing, chocolate — is affordable to us because of the poor conditions of production. If current realities of commerce, such as the abuse of migrant labor, factory farming, and environmental degradation, make it impossible to consume justly, we should consume less.
3. Act out righteousness. Let’s say we work 50 hours a week, sleep eight hours a night, and keep Shabbat. We could still allot 4.5 hours, or 10 percent of our remaining hours a week, to the pursuit of righteousness. And we would still have 40 hours of discretionary time for other pursuits and chores. Giving money is not enough; we must tithe our time as well. Whether seeking change through advocacy or serving the impoverished directly, our service will transform the world and ourselves.
This covenant of chesed, of loving kindness, requires us to balance the call to righteousness with our wholesome desires to protect and provide for our families and to save for the future. The task may feel enormous and overwhelming. But too often we ask too little of ourselves, even when we’re aware of the magnitude of suffering.
Few of us could sustain such a vision of transformation individually, so I suggest that we build a covenant together. Some synagogues may build this brit into their membership requirements. Or the practice may begin with a circle of friends or colleagues announcing their readiness to take on this brit and to support each other in meeting its challenges. Every effort to take on this brit will increase its visibility as a Jewish norm. This practice will require educational, communal, and pastoral support.
Efforts to mobilize around justice are not new. Heksher Tzedek, an ethical certification of kashrut, is a parallel attempt to ensure that our consumption is in alignment with the ethical teachings of Judaism. The effort has helped to raise our consciousness, but the Jewish community has been slow to embrace it fully. Shouldn’t our centers and institutions of Jewish life treat these mitzvot with the same attention we dedicate to prayer, in-reach, and education?
This sort of covenant is an experiment. It may fail, but our effort will help point us to practices that make radical changes commonplace. Our response will bind us to those who are suffering, unite us with our fellow responders, and activate our holy partnership with God. This is the essence of a brit.email print