At the end of the summer, synagogue pews tend to thin out. Congregants (and rabbis) are often on vacation, taking a break before the High Holidays. Some of us secular-cultural Jews who don’t attend synagogue in the first place also tend to detach from our engagement with organized Jewish life.
This summer proves even more challenging under Covid-19 restrictions; most synagogues and Jewish centers of learning have been shuttered for months. There are no pews to thin out and Zoom fatigue is setting in, and we slowly cloister ourselves deeper into the silos of our homes.
As a secular Jewish educator, I recently sat down with some of my students at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change, to discuss how the Torah portions at the end of the summer months, from the book of Deuteronomy, teach us an important lesson about social justice and action. In these chapters, we take a break from some of the more ritualistic commandments and we hear the powerful moral imperatives that Moses conveys to the People of Israel before his death and their entry into the Promised Land.
When speaking to the people, Moses reminds them that God is everywhere and serves justice without prejudice or bribery. He tells them to support “the fatherless and the widow, and befriend the stranger, providing him with food and clothing” because we too “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19).
We recently read these verses at our BINA campus in south Tel Aviv, an area which serves as home to many African refugees and asylum seekers. Every year, our students apply their Jewish studies in the classroom to our neighborhood. They live and learn in the most challenging neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv and work with the most vulnerable members of our community, those whom the legal system does not always support or protect. Over the years, we have seen various attempts to paint the asylum seekers as a threat to Israel as a Jewish state, but I think the greatest threat to our Jewish identity is not the refugees in our neighborhood but rather the mistreatment of those individuals who are most in need.
In the current Torah portions, Moses teaches us that divine morality stems not only from firm judgment, but also from compassion, love and empathy for the vulnerable among us. We humans, created in the divine image, play an important role in this moral system, and must learn to exercise both justice and compassion. Moses tells us that in addition to physical circumcision we must “circumcise” our hearts. On our hearts there is a mask or covering that prevents us from seeing the other and identifying with their suffering, enabling apathy and complicity, even under the guise of law and justice. Moses implores us to remove this covering, and not to act with the element of justice alone, but to open our hearts to human compassion.
In times of crisis, we have a tendency to put up walls and close ourselves off in order to protect ourselves and our family. We do what is required of us, but we close off our hearts to compassion as if it is a luxury we can no longer afford. But now, when the law requires us to cover our faces and physically distance our bodies, we must not cover our hearts and distance our souls. We must open our hearts and work to alleviate the suffering of others, Jews and non-Jews, neighbors and strangers, in our own towns and around the world, especially when their suffering is out of sight. In this time of global pandemic, we must circumcise our hearts — we must hear the cry of the oppressed and make our hearts compassionate.
To explore how we can all do better open our hearts, I invite you to join me, together with Jodi Rudoren (Editor-in-Chief of The Forward), Ruth Messinger, Daniel Posen and Terry Newman, for an online conversation on August 25 about global Jewish responsibility. Click here to register.
Nir Braudo is the Deputy Director of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.