Rabbi's Message: March 2014
|Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz|
From the Rabbi’s Study – Making Mitzvot a Way of LifeWhen I was still living in the UK and began to travel to the US to experience Jewish learning, creativity, and community in the US, one of the most striking differences that I observed was the emphasis on social justice as a pillar of what it meant to live as a Reform Jew in the United States. The fact that almost every Reform congregation in this country has a Social Justice committee and ensures that there are programs and opportunities throughout the year to be actively engaged in some kind of volunteering, collecting, lobbying, and education on a wide range of issues affecting the larger society in which we live is something that is a hallmark of our Reform congregations in North America, and is not widespread in other countries and communities.
While many synagogues in the UK provided some of these opportunities some of the time, it is not until very recently that congregations there have started to think about their obligations as a faith-based community to make this a core part of how they walk their walk on an ongoing basis. This year, for the first time, the rabbinic school in London, Leo Baeck College, is offering an elective course to train Rabbis to help bring this greater awareness to their communities, taught by one of my dear friends who grew up in the US and was inspired by her youth education in a Reform congregation.
Mitzvah is more than volunteering. To “volunteer” is to choose to give of one’s time for a cause. Mitzvah, in Jewish tradition, is an obligation. Tzedakah —often reduced to the English language concept of “charity” —means an act of justice, from the Hebrew word tzedek. If we are truly living by Jewish values, we fulfill the obligation to donate time, money, skills, or belongings, because we understand that doing so makes a difference in combating the inequality in our society.
Our tradition provides us with both ritual mitzvot and ethical mitzvot . When we observe Shabbat, ensure that there is a minyan for a shiva service, fast on Yom Kippur , or recite the motzi blessing over bread before we eat, we are observing ritual mitzvot. And these are important, but they are insufficient if we wish to claim that we are truly living Jewish lives.
Mitzvah Day has become a tradition in our community, and many others around the country, to bring us together in heightened awareness of our obligation to fulfill ethical mitzvot. A day is not enough, but the incredible energy and community connection that is felt at Congregation B’nai Shalom every year when hundreds participate in this day attests to the power of making the observance of these mitzvot central to who we are as Reform Jews. It can inspire us to do more. In fact,I’ve heard many stories from families who came to do something once - serve once at Northborough meals, help once at Whitney Place, volunteer once to bring a meal to a congregant in need - and who subsequently made the decision to go again and again because they recognized the power of committing to give a small part of their time in the service of others on a regular basis. Last year, Will Wilsker organized a basketball tournament on Mitzvah Day to raise money for Dana Farber cancer center. Last year it was his bar mitzvah project. This year he is doing it again and aiming to raise even more money because he deeply understands the impact he can have on the lives of others. This is mitzvah as way of life. Will’s tournament is one of many ways you can participate in Mitzvah Day. This year we are providing even more opportunities on Mitzvah Day to volunteer in many different ways, both at temple and off-site. Our goal is for every able member of every age, in partnership with fellow congregants, to find at least one thing for at least one hour, and take on that obligation. If you missed the last couple of months of “save the date” reminders and find yourself unavailable on April 6, commit yourself to finding a time and a place to give of yourself some time during April. There are many reasons why we may be inspired to do acts of social justice. Let the powerful wisdom of your faith be one of them, and may it inspire us all to do a little more this year to fulfill our ethical obligation to make our society a better place for all.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz