Why We Do What We Do

Rabbi Amy Small reflections on the fundamental connection between Judaism and working toward justice.

Authors were asked to offer short teachings on a piece of text that inspires them. To submit a text resource, click here.

The millennial generation, together with parents and grandparents, are seizing the cry of Torah:

צדק, צדק, תרדף

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof

Justice, justice shall you pursue.

Deuteronomy 16:20

This is our purpose as Jews and as human beings. We are partners with God in completing the work of creation.

The third Haftarah of consolation after Tisha B’av, from Isaiah 54, offers a powerful message at the beginning of the month of Elul (August). The prophet imagines that:

וְכָל־בָּנַ֖יִךְ לִמּוּדֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְרַ֖ב שְׁל֥וֹם בָּנָֽיִךְ׃

…בִּצְדָקָ֖ה תִּכּוֹנָ֑נִי רַחֲקִ֤י מֵעֹ֙שֶׁק֙ כִּֽי־לֹ֣א תִירָ֔אִי

All your children shall be disciples of the LORD, And great shall be the happiness of your children; you shall be established through righteousness. You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear…

Isaiah 54:13-14

Isaiah rails against distorted values, as he does in the soaring reading recited on Yom Kippur. He criticizes those who treasure material possessions while forgetting the covenant that calls us to righteousness. He asks, “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, your earnings for what does not satisfy? Give heed to Me, and you shall eat choice food and enjoy the richest {nourishment}.”

I was recently asked why we our community is engaged in causes like immigration reform. I recall my family’s immigration story, and I recall the charge of Torah. As JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen wrote (January 2017), “Let us be clear: there is no religious obligation more central to Judaism than the protection of refugees and immigrants. ‘You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.’ (Exodus 22:20)… the Torah admonishes us no fewer than 36 times to treat those who are foreign born with fairness and compassion. No other commandment is repeated so often.”   

Our Jewish history, sacred texts, and generations of accumulated wisdom teach us our sacred purpose: to build a world infused with care for each other, for the earth, and for our children’s future. This is why we do what we do.

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