On Thursday evening June 2, 2016, I had the honor to participate in the celebration of transition in leadership of our Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
It gave me the opportunity to express my gratitude and respect to two outstanding Jewish volunteer leaders, Gale Bindelglass, who is completing her three-year term as chair of our JCRC, and Ron Rosensweig, who is assuming the responsibility of continuing our multifaceted programming, aimed maintaining and deepening relationships between our Jewish community and the other ethnic and religious communities that make up the fabric of American life both nationally and locally.
Our JCRC also is the table at which Jews of varied religious and political views sit together in dialogue. It is the place from which they go forth to speak for our community to public officials locally, statewide, and nationally. Our JCRC is part of a national network of local communities and national agencies that coordinate our activities through the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an agency that was created in 1944, in the midst of the Holocaust, to be a consensus voice for the American Jewish community. That role that remains ever more difficult and critical.
In speaking to the JCRC last week and paying tribute to Gale for her many years of leadership and her creativity, I quoted from the week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, which begins with the words:
“If you will follow my decrees and my commandments and perform them, then I will provide rain in their time ….”
This opening to Leviticus 26:3-10 on first glance is theologically problematic. Both these blessings that will be bestowed upon us if we are good, and the much longer list of curses that are enumerated in the rest of this week’s parsha, literally speak of a God who micromanages what happens both in nature and in the world of human interaction. As a Jew who follows Maimonides’ teaching that we should see all anthropomorphic references to God as metaphor, the vengeful jealous God described here is hard to handle.
The primary problem I have with Bechukotai is the black-and-white, cause-and-effect relationship it describes between blessings and curses. At first glance, the text seems to leave us no room to wrestle with the reality of the evil that so often befalls innocent good people.
As early as the writing of the book of Job, Jews have challenged the direct correlation between good actions and blessed results as it applies to individuals. However, certainly since the birth of rabbinic Judaism, in every generation our sages have defended the essence of this text as it applies to us corporately, both as Jews and as human beings: What we do or do not do has consequences for us, individually and communally.
As Gale Bindelglass passed the JCRC’s gavel to Ron Rosensweig, I mentioned 10 aspects of JCRC work in which these two amazing leaders and the other lay and professional members of our JCRC continue to demonstrate that we can make a difference in the world through our action — or inaction. I share them with you today, in the hope that we can better understand the responsibility we all have to continue to support Ron and our new JCRC director, Lori Fein, in the work of JCRC in the years ahead.
1. When we as a nation or as a world community pollute the air and water of our planet, there are consequences.
2. When we choose to ignore the energy crisis and the abuse of natural resources, there are consequences.
3. When we as a community of nations stand idly by while rogue states, such as Iran, acquire nuclear weapons, there will be consequences.
4. When we as American Jews stand silent as campaigns to delegitimize Israel gain momentum on American college campuses, there will be consequences.
5. When we fail to act and when we overreact to overt and covert anti-Semitism, there are consequences.
6. When we stand up in support of peace between Palestinians and Israel and urge our government to call upon the Palestinians to join Israel at the peace table, there can be good results.
7. When we feed the hungry and house the homeless, as so many of our synagogues are doing through Family Promise here in northern New Jersey, we are using our blessings to ameliorate the curses afflicted upon others.
8. When we each give a little more tzedaka through support of the federation campaign, those who are in need, locally and globally, can access communal resources with dignity.
9. When we volunteer in Jewish community-sponsored chesed programs such as Bergen Reads, our JCRC-initiated literacy program, we not only provide a blessing to the child we mentor, but we also bring blessing upon the name of the Jewish community.
10. When we recognize our commonality with our fellow Jews of different religious streams and our fellow Americans of different faith communities or political parties, we help to bring closer the reality of our American pledge of allegiance, showing that we are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
As we came to the end of the Book of Leviticus last Shabbat, in all our synagogues Jews rose and proclaimed: chazak chazak v’nitchazak!! Be strong! Be strong! May God give you strength!
As we all prepare to recommit ourselves to accepting Torah on Shavuot tomorrow night, may we each find the strength to seek out ways to be a blessing to each other, and to the “others” in our community and around the world.