Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
“Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deuteronomy 17:20). These are the words that open our Torah portion. They speak volumes about our Jewish outlook. Justice comes from the word “tzedek”, which is at the root of “tzedakah” or acts of lovingkindness. Tzedek and tzedakah are related, because justice is served by acts of righteousness. I purposely didn’t use the word “charity” because it’s not a Jewish word. Charity comes from the Latin, which means to give out of love. We can’t wait to love before we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless. We can’t wait for love before we support equal rights for women, the LGBT community, and those who struggle because they’re in a minority community. Justice must be served. We are obviously not duty-bound to the Christian ideal of love, because it presupposes tenets of faith that, if we were to accept them, would excuse us from our “brit”, our covenant with God. Within our “brit” with God, manifested in mitzvot, we aim to restore justice and also love where it’s lacking.
Covenant-bound, we bear on our necks the “’ol mitzvah” or the yoke of the commandments. Like the yoke on the neck of an ox, the mitzvot guide us along a straight path in life. It can be a heavy burden of human responsibility, but its reward is found in the ethical deeds we do and the good works they produce.
In recent weeks, Reform Rabbis have partnered with the NAACP to march arm-in-arm from Selma to Washington, D.C., accompanied by a Torah scroll they’re carrying in a specially made backpack. The march recalls the days when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many other advocates for civil rights marched in Selma, too. The plight of African Americans in this country today fills the pages of newspapers and internet blogs with difficult accounts of young black men whose lives are snuffed out at the hands of mostly white policemen. While many allegations are still bound for court proceedings, the verdicts that have come in confirm our fears that this is a concern that our nation must address. One of Reform Judaism’s tenets is heard in the prophets’ exhortations to place ethics over rituals by seeking God’s blessings in acts of human justice, kindness and mercy.
I can’t attend the march, but I laud my colleagues who can and who represent causes for which we must take some responsibility; not because we’re African Americans, but because we’re American and we’re Jewish. In the past, our people marched in the wilderness, too, and they aimed for a promised land where the land “flowed with milk and honey.” We have been taught that “we know the heart of the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Rabbis’ partnership with the NAACP teaches us that out of the bounty we’ve come to know must flow deeds that serve others. Rabbi Hillel’s words are familiar and continue to guide us, too. He taught, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?
The Hebrew month of Elul is upon us. It marks a month of preparation that leads us to the Jewish New Year. How will tzedek, justice, be demonstrated in your New Year? How will you perform acts of righteousness to make the difference you wish to see in the world around you? This is the time to consider what Judaism calls us to do; and, this is the time to ask, if not now, when?