“Am I my brother’s keeper?” is the first question a human asks in the Torah. Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, offers it as a rhetorical response to God’s query about the fate of Cain’s brother Abel (who lies dead at Cain’s own hand).
The entire Book of Genesis answers Cain’s question with an emphatic “Yes.” We are responsible for our brothers and sisters. And many think we are responsible for more than just our family and community. The sage Hillel urges us to consider the multiple realms of “myself”: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Is it me, my family, my neighbor, people who look like me and act like me?
Progressive Jews often cite the injunction “do not oppress the stranger,” a mitzvah repeated in the Torah 36 times. The Torah also teaches, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What the Torah does not make clear is how to love the stranger. There must be more to our relationship with strangers than simply avoiding bringing them harm. How can I approach that person with love? How can I go beyond seeing someone as a stranger and be an ally to people in need?
“Ally” refers to people with power and privilege who support those without those advantages. For example, white allies participate in anti-racist activism; male allies support the struggle for women’s rights; and straight allies stand up for the LGBTQ community. Allies rally to end oppression in the lives of all people by standing with oppressed populations.
In a poignant Hasidic tale, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov reports the conversation of two peasants who are drinking together. Ivan asks his friend, “Do you love me?” His friend answers, “Of course I love you.” And Ivan says to him, “If you really loved me you would know what I need.” His friend sits in silence, without a response.
This story describes what it means to be an ally. Ivan asks for more than gestures. He is asking to be seen and heard for who he is. Such love demands a deep, full, and honest understanding of the other. And yet, in our story, Ivan’s demand makes his friend uncomfortable. Is he perplexed or feeling awkward? If I don’t know what my friend really needs, does that deny my care and concern? How can we presume to know the needs of someone else?
To be an ally is to connect our care and concern with an honest admission of what we know and don’t know about the other. How we show up for one person may be different from how we respond to another. How we engage with a group of people will have a different shape than how we ally with an individual.
The ally relationship demands that we become curious. Likewise, I too must be authentic and vulnerable, and voice my own needs; “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Allies listen wholeheartedly to each other’s needs — even when that listening is uncomfortable.
I am learning to be an ally to farm workers in Florida, hearing their stories, listening to their strategy rather than getting ahead of it, learning that I don’t have answers but I do have power. I am learning to be an ally to people of color, discerning when someone wants to be recognized as different and when they do not. I am learning to be an ally to trans people, paying attention to my choice of words and my assumptions about gender.
My power provides benefits and responsibilities. It can also get in the way. I must continue to ask myself how to get beyond any awkwardness in order to maximize respectful understanding. How can I be for myself, not only for myself, and a true ally?
Rabbi Barbara Penzner serves Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in the city of Boston. She is a T’ruah #TomatoRabbi, which supports the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.