Emor and social action
As you know, our community is in the process of choosing our social action focus for the next year. We have narrowed it down to two choices: homelessness or climate change. In this letter, I will present how confronting each these issues is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, and also, depending on which we choose, what concrete steps our congregation might actually take moving forward.
To vote on which issue we will choose, click here.
The characters of the Torah are no strangers to homelessness. Adam and Eve lose their home in the Garden of Eden. In Parashat Lech Lecha, God commands Abraham to leave the only home he’s known and travel to a new land that God promises to Abraham’s descendents. And of course, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites wander homeless in the desert for 40 years.
Finally, in the later books of the Hebrew Bible, the Amos, Micah, Isaiah and other prophets all call upon us to ensure that everyone is assured a safe and permanent home. Indeed, on Yom Kippur we read the words of Isaiah 58, in which God says, “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Isn’t this really the fast that I have chosen, that you loose the chains of injustice…clothe the naked and bring give shelter to homeless people.”
God’s outcry in Isaiah not only tells us that it is our duty to house the homeless, but actually argues that if we want connection and forgiveness from God, relieving homelessness is at least as central a religious duty as fasting and praying!
In my own life, working with homeless families has taught me how important and meaningful it is to give immediate help to people who are struggling to survive, and it has also taught me that it is also critical to address the root causes of that struggle, to create policies and programs that eradicate homelessness more broadly.
So, what are the dimensions of the problem we’re facing? Here in MA, homelessness is on the rise. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 21,237 people in Massachusetts counted as experiencing homelessness as of 2014. As of August 14, 2015, there were approximately 4,250 families with children and pregnant women in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program. In one of the richest states in the wealthiest country in the world, it feels wrong that so many people in MA experience the pain and shame of homelessness.
Thankfully, MA is also home to the MA Coalition for the Homeless, an inspiring and effective group that works with congregations and community groups around the state to eradicate poverty and homelessness in the Commonwealth.
If our community were to focus on homelessness in the coming year, we would address the issue through both education and action. We would learn about homelessness in Hebrew School and at services, and invite representatives from the MA Coalition for the Homeless (or another group) to come speak. We would continue our service work with Family Promise, and, we would choose a policy issue to work toward longer-term solutions, likely with the MA Coalition for the Homeless. For example, we might work together to prevent families with children who are being evicted from subsidized housing or terminated from shelter from having to stay in places not meant for human habitation.
Whatever we chose, through learning, prayer, and action, we would work together toward a world where everyone has a stable place to live.
Environment and Climate Change
As we say in the second paragraph of the Shma:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late…
But if, as a people, we disobey God’s commandments, as we read last week at Ben Weinstein’s bar mitzvah in Parashat Beha’alotecha, the Torah tells us our actions will have ecological consequences – we will have flooding and famine, earthquakes and dangerous storms.
What should we make of this? Traditional Jews take these words more or less literally. If you follow the mitzvot, you will be rewarded through the earth’s yields. And if you don’t follow God’s commandments, you will be punished through famine and natural disaster. For many of us, of course, this is troubling. We don’t want to imagine God as a disciplinarian, and we notice that our complicated reality doesn’t reflect a simple relationship between virtue and reward on the one hand and sinfulness and punishment on the other.
For these reasons, I much prefer the translation of the Shma by my teacher Rabbi Art Green:
If you listen, REALLY listen to the teachings of YHWH, the Breath of Life, especially the teaching that there is Unity in the world and inter-connection among all its parts, then the rains will fall as they should, the rivers will run, the heavens will smile, and the good earth will feed you…
In this version, bad things don’t happen because God is punishing us. Rather, the Shma teaches us that all is One, that everything is interconnected, that we are all part of a greater whole. If we honor that wholeness and care for the rest of creation — both because it has value in general because we know it affects us — then we will experience harmony and abundance. Or, in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s terms, if we “shatter the harmony of life,” and become disconnected from the rest of creation, then we will experience flooding, drought, and disease. Becoming disconnected from the rest of creation is exactly what we do when we live our lives without thinking about how our actions will have consequences for the planet, for future generations, and for other species.
So, how big a threat is climate change? According to the New England Aquarium, temperatures in MA have risen 2 degrees and sea levels have risen 11 inches. By 2100, temperatures, precipitation, and sea levels are set to rise even more. This will likely lead to coastal flooding and an increase in diseases like West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever. It is eerie how similar the Bible’s threats are to the realities of climate change.
Each year on Tu Bishvat we share our commitment to caring for creation, and many of us go green in large and small ways. Yet, what would it look like for us to respond to climate change as a congregation?
First, let me share what other MA congregations are doing. MA congregations and faith organizations have come together through the MA Interfaith Coalition on Climate Action (pronounced MICAH) to work for a clean and just energy future for our Commonwealth. MAICCA is working to ensure that our state invests in clean and renewable energy sources, so that we can actually meet the goal that the MA State Legislature has set out to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.
If we were to work on this issue, we would learn at services and in Hebrew School about Jewish teachings on the environment and our responsibilities to it. We would also invite representatives to speak, from the MAICCA Coalition or other groups, to share personal stories of climate action and how faith communities have made a difference. We would join together in community service by working together on the cleanup of a beach or state park. And, we would work together with MAICCA (or other groups) to ask our legislators to invest in renewable energy – perhaps advocating that we lift caps on solar energy development, increase funding for wind energy, and invest in programs like Mass SAVE that help individuals make smart choices.
Whichever choice our congregation makes — either combating homelessness or climate change — we have before us powerful opportunities to make our world better. I hope you will join us in making this decision, by voting here.
The Talmud teaches that the world stands on three pillars, Torah learning, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness – al shlocha devarim ha-olam omed: al ha-Torah, v’al ha-avodah, v’al gemulut chassadim. This formulation has guided Jewish communities for generations to balance their efforts around study, ritual, and social action. By strengthening our own commitment to learning and action in the coming year, I hope we can become an even stronger and more holy community.