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I just made a donation to Camfed, the Campaign for Female Education, after reading Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column on Mother’s Day. He puts the horror of the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria into a powerful context. There is nothing more frightening in repressive societies, he writes, than to educate the girls, and there is nothing that will lift a country out of poverty and despair than to educate the girls. I felt driven to do something and Camfed was one of his suggestions.
We use social media to express our outrage, we watch our government send drones, we are basically powerless. But we can at least send money to agencies who are doing work on the ground.
As I read Kristof’s article (and I do think of him as a modern prophet), the discussion we had earlier today at Spring Lake Village in the Chaplain’s class came to mind. The class presents Jewish and Christian takes on a number of topics. Today, we were talking about the values of ultimate importance to our respective traditions. I quoted the Talmud from tractate Makkot (23b-24b), which starts with describing the 613 mitzvot, 365 positive commandments and 248 negative ones, representing the days in the year and the bones in our body – making the point that we are to do what’s right, attach ourselves to the highest values every single day with every bone in our body… and then it shows values from Psalms to Isaiah to Amos to Micah. I ended with Hillel’s description of the Torah standing on one foot: do not do to your neighbor what is hateful to you; the rest is commentary: go and study.
My partner, the marvelous and wonderful chaplain Bob Jones, D.Min, reviewed both the Sermon on the Mount and John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. What we believe is more important than what we do. The Sermon on the Mount says the opposite.
But we launched further into the discussion of the medieval practice of indulgences: that one could buy one’s way into heaven, a practice that so burned Martin Luther that he transformed Christianity, turning back to the idea of faith more than action.
I know that Christians do good works all over the world, especially Catholics, who have abandoned the practice of indulgences. And so I was surprised to hear that faith continues to be at least as prominent as action.
For Jews, our precepts all have to do with how we are in the world, how we treat each other, and what our intentions for doing so are. We acknowledge that being good in public is nothing if you go home and beat your wife or abuse your child. We spend a lot of time focusing on cleaning our souls so that we can live a life of kindness.
But it was the act of making a donation to an organization that is doing work I can’t do that really got me to thinking. That was an act of tzedakah, from the word tzedek, or justice (as in “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20)). This means that supporting the widow, orphan and poor people in our midst follows the commandment to pursue justice, and is not an act of charity. We are not buying our way into heaven, but actively working to make the world we live in a better place, a more just place.
To be an active member of our community—whether our block, our neighborhood, our town, county, state, nation or the world, can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. And so many of us—including me, too often—close our eyes to the suffering around us—in the next room or across the world. I am grateful for the organizations that are being the hands of the divine, the heart and soul of the holy, who are actively making this world better for the people in their corner.
To be a responsible Jew and human being, I am reminded that it is not my responsibility to finish the work, but neither am I allowed to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Sometimes, the best I can do is make a donation.
I am horrified that over 200 girls could be kidnapped from their school. As someone who attended an all women’s college, I am shaken by the idea that men in jeeps and masks and with guns could drive up to the school and herd girls out into the ether, not to be seen again.
I pray that they are returned, that more of them escape safely, and all are returned. I am grateful for organizations that are doing the work to help. I invite you to join this effort.