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Rabbi Robinson's SermonParashat Mattot-Masei

07/13/2018 10:57:32 AM

Jul13

Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Mattot-Masei

7/13/18

This past week I had the privilege of teaching at Delaware State University. They, in partnership with the Urban League, run a fellowship for community organizers and people working in non-profit and civic engagement here in Delaware. Specifically, the fellowship seeks to “train young people of color to be change agents empowered to create and execute solutions to pressing social problems.” They wanted me to come out and speak to this group about the Jewish community and congregational engagement. So, dunks in hand, I showed up at their building on Kirkwood Highway, studied a little Talmud with them, and talked about the challenges and benefits of community engagement with religious organizations in general and Jewish organizations in particular, and generally blathered at them for an hour and a half.

It was an engaging morning. Inspiring, really. As is often the case, I found this group both humbling and a bit intimidating, and probably learned more from them than they learned from me. Here I am, being brought in as a so-called ‘expert’, and here are young people who are already working in the schools, in the office of the public defender, on the North Side, the West Side, literally on the front lines actually walking the walk and talking the talk of community organizing and engagement, trying to move the needle for communities desperately in need. Not that we don’t do good work, mind you, both as a congregation and a Jewish community, but we aren’t living it, for the most part. We come in and do our project: we volunteer for Family Promise or cook meals or raise funds or tutor kids or do one of the myriad other Tikkun Olam endeavors that do help, and then we get in our car and go home, home being somewhere else, somewhere in the bubble that is the North Wilmington Jewish community. These folks are deeply invested because it’s their community.

And I’ll tell you what: being with these folks: these lawyers and phd students and teachers who could do truly anything with their lives and choose to work in the community, was exactly what I needed. I needed to see people who are not deterred by the cruelty of individuals in power, who are energized by the needs around them, and who sees the potential for this community to be, well, better than it is. It was inspiring to talk to these folk, each one smarter and more determined than the next, who were committed to the work out of a sense of urgency but are clear-eyed about what that work involves, and why the work must be done. As one of the participants said: she sees her work as selfish, because as long as there are individuals and communities that are suffering, she cannot consider herself to have any success or happiness.

It’s an important reminder to us as we get into the weeds of our Torah portion. Amidst the reframing of the journey of the Israelites, and the recapitulation of various laws and encounters Israel has faced, and the boundaries for each tribe in the land of Israel are established, the tribes Reuben and Gad make a request to settle outside the land, beyond the Jordan. Their leaders have a vision for their people, and see that the land they would choose to settle is, frankly, better suited to their needs than the land they would be given east of the River. Moses, fearing another revolt like the one involving the spies, cuts them a new one, until they insist that they are not doing this to abandon their fellow Israelites. In fact, they offer to go as the vanguard, the shock troops, ahead of everyone else. While on the surface they are not fighting for themselves, the Gadites and Reubenites get that for their tribes to be successful, all of Israel needs to be successful, for them to have prosperity, all of Israel needs to experience prosperity.

And so it is with us. How can we call ourselves prosperous, or happy, so long as children suffer, so long as people in our community go hungry, or experience violence? The answer is, we cannot. Not yet, not until we can say truly that we have gone ahead as a vanguard to help those in need around us. If we cannot say that we have alleviated even a modicum of pain in our midst, can we really say that we have lived well?

For me, the most fun I had with the fellows was studying Talmud with them. There’s something cool about introducing people, Jewish or non-Jewish, to text study. The text we studied was from Sotah 14a. In it, the rabbis ask about the verse “we should walk after God” and ask how it’s possible to do so. The answer is that we should follow the attributes of God: as God clothes the naked, tends to the sick, comforts the mourners and buries the dead throughout Torah, so should we. And that when we do so, we are affirming the dignity of those who need our help. It doesn’t say “Jews only”, and it certainly doesn’t say “Americans only”. Nor does the text say we even have to like the people we’re helping. Only that, to walk after God, we must act, to go like Reuben and Gad as the vanguard knowing that, while the task isn’t obviously to our benefit, in the end it is. You know what? The fellows got this text intuitively. I hope that we can as well.

Fri, January 18 2019 12 Sh'vat 5779