“Know that everything is according to the reckoning.” (Ethics of our Fathers 4:29)
A fundamental tenant of Jewish faith is that the universe will ultimately become just.
Now, we ought to be able to look at the world and see its chaos, injustice, and brokenness. But that is not all we should see. We need to understand that God has stepped back from the world (tzimtzum), in order to increase our free will and ability to partner to repair this world. Yet, our collective enterprise to repair the brokenness inevitably falls short. We cultivate faith that through the infinity of time, all will work out in the best manner, in ways that we cannot comprehend.
We have trouble feeling loved because we don’t feel seen; we don’t feel heard. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a former member of the Knesset, taught:
Every generation has its own cry, sometimes open, sometimes hidden; sometimes the baby itself doesn’t know that it’s crying, and hence we have to try to be attentive to the hidden cries as well.
In the world today, there are countless invisible people with hidden cries. They are victims of deep injustices and violent oppression. They are the boys who wash dishes at restaurants and the men who wash cars. They are the girls who make hotel beds and the women who serve in homes. They are the slaves confined by our penal code and others objectified as sex workers. They are the homeless, spending their days in the shadow of our contempt and their nights in our parks of denial. Theirs are the open cries reverberating within our souls and the loud cries of the streets. Theirs are the subterranean cries of those yearning for support and comfort.
Jewish spirituality urges us to see beyond the physical and sanctify the unseen. This is what Rabbi Amital means: We should hear the hidden cries from people who are separated from everyday life, who are not allowed to function on the same level as those who walk past them in the street or do not see them working in the stockroom of a fancy restaurant. These are the refugees whose plights are hidden through veiled eyelids, the homeless man who sleeps on a bed of cardboard and garbage, and the immigrant who spends her early mornings and late evenings traveling between jobs that exploit her willingness to support her family. These are the invisible people. These are the voices crying out for us to hear. Cultivating the ability to listen and respond is the central goal of the Jewish ethical demands for equity and justice.
When Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, he said, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Let’s take this admonition to heart. We need the courage to see and make seen the victims of injustice among us.
Rabbi Dov Baer ben Avraham, a Hasidic master known as the Maggid of Mezritch (18th century Poland/Lithuania), speaks powerfully of yeish mei-ayin, “creation out of nothing.” He teaches that helping those who lurk in the shadows is akin to something coming into existence that previously did not exist, providing light to something that previously was unseen, comparing this to the creation of the universe itself.
Jewish law demands not only that we see, but that we be seen — yireh, yeira-eh — in Jerusalem during festivals (BT Chagigah 2a). This law is not a relic. It is moral training for our eyes and our hearts; we are to be open and see those who are unseen. Connecting and supporting the unseen is not distraction from tradition, but tradition’s actualization. Greater than lending money or giving tzedakah to a poor individual, the rabbis tell us, is providing partnership (BT Shabbat 63a). Seeing all people as equal goes far toward treating them with respect and dignity. We cannot discount those who are different.
Fortunately, people can help make visible those whom society deems invisible. We accomplish this by letting the vulnerable seek the succor they need. We offer unconditional love and hope without judging status. Only hope and love can bring solace. Every time we encounter people who dwell in the shadows, those who are ignored due to their situation, their appearance, or circumstance, we must transcend our fears and prejudices to lend a hand.
Some of the most terrifying times in our lives will be those when we feel as though we barely exist, when we don’t feel acknowledged by the world, let alone appreciated or loved. These times remind us to recommit to help others who feel hopeless.
Let’s remember the stranger who lurks in the periphery. Let us be his friend, her family, and their advocates. We live in a precarious time. Demagoguery and political expediency have cleaved our nation into haves and have-nots. Public assistance, so vilified when it has supported struggling families and individuals, flows plentifully into the pockets of those who have sought to swindle our society, usually through fraud or gaming the system to line up tax breaks into undeserving pockets. For too long, policies injurious to the vulnerable have proliferated, leaving us less empathetic. Our purpose is to rectify this. With love toward all of Creation, we must open our ears to the voiceless and our eyes to the invisible.
This is an excerpt from ‘Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary,’ by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, which revisits the ethical teachings of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and applies them to Jewish life in the modern world, providing Jewish perspectives on issues from homelessness to interpersonal relationships to climate change. The new volume is published by CCAR Press, a division of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and is the first book authored entirely by a Modern Orthodox writer released by the publishing arm of the Reform movement. The book is divided into six chapters, corresponding to the six chapters of the original Pirkei Avot.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash, Founder and President of Uri L’tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of Shamayim V’Aretz.