The noble ideal of striving

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
March 25, 2014
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jumping in

In this month’s Sh’ma print publication, Nigel Savage of Hazon offers us an unfortunate and potentially deflating reality: we live in a broken world with seemingly unsolvable challenges. He closes his thought provoking piece by alluding to the Mishnah, “We will not resolve many of the greatest challenges of our time — but neither may we desist from engaging them, with all that we know, all that we have, and all that we aspire to.”

The rabbinic dictum to which he refers, “[Rabbi Tarfon] would say, it is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” (Mishnah Avot 2:16) is one of my personal favorites. Whenever I address B’nei Mitzvah I almost always quote it to remind them that the world they are inheriting will not be an easy one to navigate and that our tradition demands that they engage – how one engages is unique to each individual, but the only option the Jewish tradition does not offer is to “check out.”

Nigel frames this tension in a beautiful way, not only challenging us to step outside of the temptation to see things as black-and-white when their is always nuance and perspective, but he also reminds us of the importance of hope in the face of despair.  I appreciate this message both in that I wholeheartedly agree and that it is a message that I often need reminding of. Yet, in the spirit of striving to uphold the Jewish ideal of respectful dialog and debate, I wonder if this message, in and of itself, does not become a sort of tarnished noble ideal…

From the perspective of an organizer or a change-maker, one who dreams and has a visionary perspective of a better world, Nigel is 100% correct and one would be foolish to disagree. When seeking to institute real and systemic change, ignoring nuance is a recipe for isolating others and disenfranchising the very people we need as allies. Yet, what about as individuals? How long do we give ourselves permission to feel “okay” with what we are able to accomplish even as we hold onto our ideal to strive? Nigel mentions in his piece some of the most important changes to global society in the history of the world – the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, the end of Apartheid, and acknowledges that this was the work of hordes of individuals binding together toward a common cause. Yet, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “All it takes is one person… and another… and another… and another… to start a movement.”

Nigel rightly and aptly reminds us, There is no ‘over there.’ I do not blame ‘the oil companies,’ ‘the airlines,’ ‘the auto companies,’ ‘big Ag.’ We are consensual customers of all of them. We have grown up in a world that is, literally, unsustainable.” It is true. We are consensual customers of all of them – except for those individuals who are not… All it takes is one person to say, I will do without the comforts and convenience of <fill in the blank> and human ingenuity creates new possibilities for alternatives. Take, for example, Hazon’s CSA program. People have seen the need to bring the incredible power of supporting local farmers to overcome reliance on industrial agriculture and bring it to individual Jewish communities. Problem solved? Obviously not. Movement started? Absolutely. When Hazon first began organizing Jewish communities on CSAs it started with a few here and there – today, over 2000 families participate. As an advocate of local, sustainable food who teaches and speaks often on the topic, the number one answer I get as to why someone is reluctant to join a CSA is: too much kale. My response? Eat more kale.

My point is not to disagree with Nigel’s overarching principle, as he states it, “that we will live with this messy reality for the remainder of our lives. These are not resolvable challenges.” Like I said, he is 100% correct. Yet, there comes a point where we must be motivated to take that leap into the murky waters. As I share with B’nei Mitzah kids the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, I also often balance it with the well-known midrash of Nachshon ben Aminadav – the chief of the tribe of Judah who, while the Children of Israel argued at the shore of the Sea of Reeds while Pharaoh’s army drew near, took a leap of faith and jumped into the waters.

Striving is a beautiful ideal in the Jewish tradition – a core ideal, in fact. But we must not lose sight of the ideal, as it would be phrased in Yiddish, zein a nachshon. Someone has to be the first to take a step knowing that, chances are, another will follow, and another… and another… and another…

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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