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Caring for Justice

Parashat B’har 5784


As much as I love celebrating the many happy occasions we lift up at this point of service, this Shabbat is bittersweet for me. Because it is my last regular opportunity to offer a drashah from this bima, sure. More so, though, because it is my final Shabbat service leading with Peri, tomorrow morning is my last Torah study session, then I am away next weekend, and the week after is Shabbat Across the Berkshires at KI in Pittsfield (please join us), and then Rabbi Gordon and I have one more service together. Friends, that is it.

To make my concluding argument, for the past two weeks, I have shared with you some essential ideas that I see as core to how we practice Judaism today. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we are taught that the world stands upon three things: Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. Two weeks ago, Chapter One was my thinking on the meaning of Torah study and Jewish discourse; recall the giant question mark. Chapter Two last week was about the God Wink, when we serendipitously find ourselves touched by the Divine. Tonight, Chapter Three comes from some of the work I have been doing toward my doctoral dissertation. Tonight is about G’milut Chasadim, acts of lovingkindness.


Chesed is the heart of our understanding of how we are supposed to be in the world. 

 

If you look at the three-legged stool upon which the world stands—Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim; Torah, prayer, and lovingkindness—the third may be the least obvious to envision. We know study and prayer's look, feel, sounds, and smells. But what about acts of lovingkindness? At its root, we are talking about the Hebrew concept of chesed. The meaning of chesed is expansive: When we recite Hallel, Psalms of Praise, we declare, "Ki l’olam chasdo, God’s love is everlasting.”[1] Chesed in the Psalms is love that flows between God and Israel. In Rabbinic thought chesed becomes an action as much as an attitude. When we study Torah, do so with chesed. When we give tzedakah, we do so with chesed.[2] 


Rabbi Shai Held has a new book out called Judaism is About Love. There, he asserts that the essential value of Jewish life is love, expressed as both ahavah and chesed,

“Judaism is not what you think it is. Judaism is about love. The Jewish tradition tells the story of a God of love who creates us in love and enjoins us, in turn, to live lives of love. We are commanded to love God, the neighbor, the stranger—and all of humanity—and we are told that the highest achievement of which we are capable is to live with compassion. This is considered nothing less than walking in God’s own ways.”[3]


And while we have another word for love, ahavah, only chesed best conveys the actions we take to do that which is loving. Chesed is the integration of love and law, as Held puts it. Chesed is then love+: Chesed is care.


In the world in which we live, when faced with so much heartache, anger, confusion, aggression, and injustice, we are called to care for one another. As Maurice Sendak reminds us at the end of his little book Pierre, the moral is: Care!


The care of which I speak is both a value and a practice.


Care is an aspiration; it is the best version of our relationships. It is the experience of knowing one is safe, secure, and provided for; or knowing that you are gifting those blessings to another.


Care is a practice. The teacher gives students the tools to read, do math, paint, and sing. The mother feeds the baby. Governments express care when they provide for the most vulnerable and when they act to protect life. Think of the legislation that mandates car seatbelts or restricts tobacco companies from advertising to minors. A radical notion is to say that even the actions taken by the Pentagon are caring. I think of a Westpoint graduate friend who served as an officer for many years. In the signature of his emails is the following quotation: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to act on their behalf.”


Care is a value, and care is a practice.


Care can also be a lens through which we understand the world. Care then becomes an ethic, a way of conducting ourselves. The ethics of care are determined by four questions, which are great tests to understand any action:

(1)     Is the person attentive to the issue at hand?

(2)     Does that person carry an obligation to act?

(3)     Is the person who is acting competent to do so?

(4)     And is the person responsive to the needs?

Filter an ethical problem through these questions and we can figure out what one ought to be doing. Consider a parent and a newborn. The newborn cries out in the middle of the night because their diaper needs to be changed. A young parent—desperate for sleep— thinks “Would someone please go quiet that child…" Only to realize that they are the ones who need to go and take care of the child! Use our four standards of care; here's what the parent does: (1) be attentive to the diaper, (2) no one other than the parent is coming to help, (3) there is no better expert to change the diaper than the parent, and (4) once the diaper is changed and the baby soothed, everyone gets to go back to sleep.


For a parent to disregard a baby’s needs we call negligence. It ends up that the opposite of care is not a lack of compassion; it is negligence.


I find this caring lens incredibly useful not only for understanding the interactions at home and the dynamics between family members but also for contextualizing our relationships in the workplace, in the community, and even in our broader world.


When we live in a world that is not at ease with itself, care can help us feel grounded. Care can stabilize us, directing our energy when forces outside our control create turbulence.

And this has undoubtedly been a turbulent week, compounded by the tension from the past several weeks and months. Reading about Karim Khan—the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court—who is publicly seeking arrest warrants for Hamas leadership and Israeli leadership provokes the question, "Is that the right thing to do?" Hearing from four heads of state declare that they would begin to recognize Palestine officially generated questions about the implications of such a move. Considering the upheaval within Israel, that there is no clear path to bringing home the hostages, that aid to Gazans is not flowing as it should, and that the famine risk grows due to the continued corruption within UNRWA, that the Israeli government has no valid vision for the day after in Gaza and continues to operate in Raffah at the significant discomfort of Israel's allies, that members of the cabinet are publicly contending with one another, that even as students leave college campuses for the summer we do not know what is in store for the summer and next school year, I—like many of you I imagine—continue to wonder “What should I make of all of this? What am I to do with all of this?”


The world is not at ease and the status quo has ruptured, so we need good ethical guidelines to help us determine what is right and wrong.


That is why I am so interested in the ethics of care. We know what attentiveness looks like, we can identify the people who are obligated to act, we can assure competence in providing care, and we can make sure it all happens promptly. And we know when someone has delayed care. I would invite you to read the news with these standards in mind; it can shift perspectives.


Friends, we grapple with questions that only have complex, messy responses. Since October 7, it has not been infrequent that someone has asked me, “Rabbi, what do you make of everything going on?” Given the onslaught of negative news, I am not surprised to hear about feelings of confusion, despair, and fatigue. The international community’s denial of the trauma of October 7 hurts. Protests that call for the globalization of the intifada scare me because we all understand what that really means.


I do not have all the answers. We should be circumspect of those who claim otherwise. But I do know that we live in a time in which injustices are apparent, and our tradition obligates us to pursue remedies to these harms. As a people, we Jews are rodphei shalom and rodphei Tzedek, seekers of peace and justice; it hurts to have all of the evidence of the horrors of October 7 dismissed as fake news. It is painful to know that the Israeli military committed atrocities in Gaza, even under the banner of war. I am reminded of the Midrash that describes God weeping over the Egyptians who died when the Red Sea closed upon them and the Israelites danced. God may have redeemed the Israelites but simultaneously mourned the loss of another part of humanity.


For many of us, October 7 was another moment like the shooting at Tree of Life or other instances of antisemitism—a tragedy that reinforces our Jewishness. Still, I am concerned about those within the Jewish community who have given up on Israel. I worry there are more among us than we care to admit. The images from Gaza repulse, causing a rupture of any connection they may have once felt with the State of Israel. In truth, for some, perhaps those threads were already frayed. Some are calling for the fostering of diaspora Judaism separate and apart from anything that Israel does. Zionism is no longer a factor in their Jewishness. Worse, I worry about those for whom the experiences of the past seven months mean that they can no longer identify as Jews.


That is not my perspective. To not care is to be negligent. I am not ready to give up on anyone. I cannot give up on Israel. Years ago, before coming to Hevreh, I was involved in an Israel organization active in the Metro Boston area. Violence had broken out between Israel and Hamas, and in response, the IDF went into Gaza. The Boston Jewish community rallied for Israel, seeking co-sponsors of all the major Jewish organizations. Our group leader signed us up along with the other Jewish communal organizations, yet others on the oversight committee had a fit. This rally did not represent our specific position as Zionists and peace activists. They argued that we should remove the organization's name from the co-sponsor list. As the debate went on, it struck me that if we pulled out of the rally now, we would draw more attention and criticism to our nuanced position, and that we would lose credibility among others within the Jewish community.


I lost the argument. The group removed their name from the rally, and I resigned from the oversight committee. The next day, Ha'aretz ran an article about how we did not support Israel.


One does not remove injustice from the world by getting up from the table. To leave is to neglect, the opposite of care. That lesson feels relevant today as well.


If we want to know what the caring thing to do is, we should find ways to become more deeply engaged in all of the conversations regarding Israel/Palestine. I know we are tired. However,  we are being called to attention, we are obligated, our heads and our hearts understand, and we know that if we do not engage now, we will continue to lament a devolution of the Zionist project. The caring thing to do is to do the difficult thing, to engage more deeply around Israel/Palestine.


Two weeks ago, I shared the story of the Oven of Aknai.[4] I have yet to share another part of the story that teaches about chesed, especially when it is difficult to perform.

Rabbi Eliezer and the other sages had a great debate in the house of study. Rabbi Eliezer held the correct answers to the legal question at hand, but his argumentative behavior with his peers and students was not in keeping with proper conduct. Because of this, he was ostracized from the community.


Rabbi Eliezer lamented his shunning. He wanted desperately to be let back into the community. He was so aggrieved that when he cried, the entire world was afflicted. Crops did not grow well, and even dough kneaded in the baker's hand spoiled. Any place that Rabbi Eliezer fixed his gaze burned.


As Rabbi Eliezer raged over his ostracism, Rabban Gamliel—one of the other great sages of the beit midrash—was traveling a great distance over the sea by ship. It so happens that Eliezer and Gamliel were not only equal in the beit midrash but also brothers-in-law; Eliezer's wife was Gamliel's sister. Rabbi Eliezer's anger caused a great wave to come over Rabban Gamleil’s ship, and he almost drowned. Because Gamliel was also a rabbi of tremendous power, he prayed, the waves subsided, and he was saved.


Realizing he had almost killed his brother-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer felt remorse and sought to make t’shuvah. Yet, his wife knew that if her husband were successful in repenting, it would cause her brother’s death. She refused to leave his side, lest he lower his head to pray, and repent.


One day, for reasons that are not clear, she went to the doorway of their house, leaving Eliezer unattended. Some say that a community member had knocked on the door, seeking tzedakah and food. When she returned, she found her husband praying, having made t’shuvah, and she knew in her heart of hearts that her brother’s soul departed this world. As they stood in the doorway together, they both heard a shofar from Gamliel’s house confirming his death.


This part of the Oven of Aknai story is about difficult chesed. The storytellers passed along a tale told in the extreme. The only way for Rabbi Eliezer to heal from the harm he suffered was to repent. That repentance, though, would bring the death of a beloved friend. Indeed, when Rabban Gamliel saved his own life that day on the ship, he knew that he had only cheated death for a time. Perhaps when Eliezer’s wife answered the door, she knew what she was doing. She enabled her husband's freedom again, even when it would create further sorrow within their home. She performed an act of difficult chesed.


In other words, caring is not easy, and it is not always kind or passive. Caring is doing the difficult thing. We understand our obligations to one another. We grasp that we must attend to those duties, because we have to do so thoughtfully and on time.


So much of today's call for relief is about seeking more justice in the world. I, too, want justice. Yes, Tzedek, Tzedek, tirdof. 


Even more, I want care. I want chesed, expressed easily or not. I want us to act caringly and lovingly in the world. I want us to hold others accountable through an ethic defined by care. I want us to be energized and nourished by chesed, which may not always be easy. But when we act accordingly, we choose a spiritual path that ascends. "Olam Chesed yibaneh,” the Psalmist reminds us, “We can create a world filled with loving kindeness." That is the vision, that is the standard to which we hold others; that is how we act as Jews in the world.


Shabbat shalom.


[1] Psalm 136.

[2] BT Sukkot 49b.

[3] Held, Shai. Judaism Is About Love: Recovering the Heart of Jewish Life (p. 5). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[4] BT Baba Metzia 59a-b.

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