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Shaarei Tzedek – The Gates of Justice

On Yom Kippur, three Hevreh members shared their perspectives and their stories on the Gates of T’filah (prayer), T’shuvah (Repentance), and Tzedakah (Justice).

The following is the reflection on the Gates of Justice, by Jim Sinkoff.

Tzedek/Tzedakah – What does it mean?  It is almost impossible to translate, as it has many meanings, each related to the other: justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, humility, equity, fairness, freedom, innocence, and judgment. To me, it certainly means more than strictly legal justice.   It also has a hierarchy, though most easily relatable to the legal system in sentences handed down for crimes committed.   While I appreciate the modern imperative of Justice, especially in a post 9/11 society, I am often saddened by our discourse which is barren of its redemptive roots.  And, this application of Justice only covers a small portion of the spectrum of Tzedakah, only that, which can be neatly contained within scholarly legal doctrine or court resolution.

Instead, let me offer that it is a commandment, not in the “must do” sense of the word but an Adelade, and especially for me, an ethical northstar.

The practice of Tzedakah is necessary work to perfect life’s unions, focused on those I love, those I know and, as important and maybe more so, those I don’t (the stranger).  During these 10 days of awe, I am reminded that I often fall short, and I think this is the essence of Tzedek. Falling short graces us and infuses us with Chazak.  Not trying is not an option.  The practice is the embodiment of the ideal to reach the promised land.

Which brings me to the land, literally, and so I will tell you a story.  Its narration may at first seem incongruous, but I hope it will become seamless at its end.

The official federal poverty level in the United States is $11,770 per capita per year; that works out to be $5.65 an hour.  The official percent of those considered poor in the US is 15% or roughly 45 million people.  Stunningly, this number does not take into account geographic differences so does not account for cost of living, such as housing.  Contemplate further, on $45.20 (a little more than a tank of gas at today’s prices) a day, attempt to have three nutritionally sound meals, transport oneself to work, and pay the rent….   In stark contrast, Haiti, where I have spent some time, working and teaching, the per capita income is estimated, by the IMF, at $1,750 per year.

The catalyst for my work is to understand the indigenous conditions to equate a culturally relevant equivalent in Spring Valley, NY where the Haitian population is large and home to a significant portion of the patients we serve.  Specifically, acting as a community health worker, assisting our physicians, during the clinics we established in two neighborhoods in Port Au Prince.   This included outreach in the neighborhoods to engage folks, inform them of the free clinical services, leading health education sessions on a variety of topics, registering folks for an appointment, taking blood pressure readings and running errands and other tasks to help things along.   My work also included coaching soccer to many young boys and girls and teaching young coaches some of the craft of becoming a coach.  And, then using sport as a  touch point for our pediatric clinic in Port Au Prince.

What has drawn me to my life’s work in service to the poor (now more euphemistically referred to as the underserved), I cannot precisely pinpoint, though I have, as long as I can remember, a sense of what is both precious and fleeting: the diminishment and eventual loss of one’s health and wellness. (The very premature death of both my parents may be a source of this sensibility).  This loss is indiscriminate; not a function of age, though age brings its own optics to our frailty and vincibility.    We all know feelings of pain, whether acute or chronic and the associated feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.  Compound these feelings for those stigmatized by low literacy, lack of resources, lack of English language skill or comprehension, fear, distrust, racism, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the call of Tzedakah, and its nearest neighbor Tikkun Olam, harken.

The many shades of Tzedakah encourage me to tangibly and resolutely break down the barriers (metaphorically walk through the Gate) that prevent people from receiving the care they require.  To do otherwise, would, I believe be a sin.

This sentence is hard to write, as I do not, generally, think in such stark terms.  Such terms do not naturally fall off my tongue.  Yet, I can within the suppleness of Tzedekah permit this aspect to illuminate my understanding of these 10 days and beyond.  So, let me complete this story by re-acquainting a connection to the land, for which no introduction was needed when our forbearers were our farmers.  We have largely lost this connection and have compensated for a lack of connection through obsession with food, food channels, organic, natural and all variety of inference that unless we eat a certain way we will not be well or healthy.

I can say with certainty, the food we eat and the wine we drink is likely harvested by a seasonal or migrant farmworker, likely that person is male in his 20s or mid-30s and his average life span is 49 years old. He likely has a family and likely lives on a campo provided by the farmer or vintner.  His family is likely from Central America and to a lesser degree South America (lesser known fact: Berkshire apple growers hire migrantes to harvest their crop).   He is likely undocumented and, therefore with few, if any, rights or legal status.  He likely earns his income based on the bushel or barrel, not on a fixed or guaranteed amount.   He likely has been doing this work for his entire life and sending money back home to support an extended family. In pre-9/11 times, he likely traveled throughout the US so he could harvest all year long. He and is family likely live at or near the federal poverty line.  He likely has no health insurance. He likely has more than one chronic illness either, osteoarthritis, diabetes, or hypertension and likely a substance abuse disorder.    He likely cannot afford the food that ends up on our tables.  From his hands to our table.

These are many of the families I care for, in fact about 8,000 individuals in the Hudson Valley of New York and North and South forks of Long Island.   In addition to these individuals, there are many others, nearly 140,000 individuals and their families that seek healthcare services, with nearly 80% of those individuals at the federal poverty line.  Frequently, I, and many others, go to the camps to make good on the pledge of Tzedakah.  Through many mechanisms, barriers are broken each day to assure that the heath and wellness that I cherish, is pledged to others, in the same manner in which I pledge it to my family.   Each day, I am reminded that the work of Tzedakah calls upon me to, from Deuteronomy “return the pledge at sundown”.   I am also reminded of Moses’ words to Joshua, Chazak Ve’emtz as I am equally reminded of how often I fail.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written… On Yom Kippur it is sealed. May it be written and may it be sealed that you and your family have a new year that brings fulfillment and happiness, peace and prosperity – all of life’s very best things.

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