It happens every year, but it’s so easy to miss.
Amidst the furious litany of prostration, piyutim, chest-beating, vow renunciation, confession of sins, and agonizing, stomach-pummeling fasting that comprise Yom Kippur, the Prophet Yishayahu will arrive, bearing a stick of prophetic dynamite.
His shocking words appear in the haftorah carefully selected by the rabbis for Yom Kippur morning. While we might hope for a tidy message, for some encouragement to keep up our fasting, that’s not at all what Isaiah had in mind.
“Is this the fast I desire?” Hashem asks, through Isaiah. “A day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush?”
“No! This is the fast I desire:
to unlock chains of wickedness,
untie the cords of injustice,
let the oppressed go free,
break off every yoke,
and not ignore your own kin” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
Isaiah has launched a full-frontal assault on our understanding of Yom Kippur. He comes to denounce our complacency, our davening, and most of all, our groans about how hungry we are.
“You know who else is hungry today?” he asks. “The poor people living all around you, whom you could have fed this year!”
But in my experience, his radical message is barely noticed in most Orthodox shuls come Yom Kippur morning. Most of us are too hungry or tired to pay attention.
Orthodoxy’s Chesed Conundrum
This year, what if we as a community took the haftorah seriously? How well would Isaiah grade Orthodox Jewry on its help for the vulnerable?
On the one hand, our community is a true leader in chesed for fellow Jews. According to the 2020 Pew Survey, an impressive 80% of Orthodox Jews say they feel a “great deal” of responsibility to help other Jews in need, the highest level of any Jewish group polled.
And we do help fellow Jews. Orthodox communities are unparalleled in their creation of Gemachs, Maot Chitim, Tomchei Shabbos, bikkur cholim services, and programs for people with disabilities. We certainly do not “ignore our own kin” (Isaiah 57:8).
But hunger transcends our communal boundaries. So do poverty, illness, and violence. Yishayahu doesn’t specify that we’re to “give our bread” only to the Jewish poor, or fight injustice only if it affects our brethren. (On a halachic level, the Gemara in Gittin 61a says we should give tzedaka to non-Jews, which is codified into halacha by the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch.)
What are we doing for the life of our cities? For our poor neighbors who aren’t Jewish? Are we known in our cities as leaders on the opioid epidemic or the climate crisis? Are we “taking the wretched poor into our home,” inviting needy residents of our city to sleep in our homes or communities?
If all of that feels like a tall order, there’s still much you can do to get started.
A Pioneering Approach in Chicago
Here in the Chicago region, we’re pioneering an Orthodox approach to “outward-facing” social action. Our chesed and tzedek initiative is called “Solu,” a name borrowed from the Yom Kippur Haftorah, which means “make a path!” (Isaiah 57:14). We create pathways into volunteerism for Orthodox Jews interested in improving the lives of our neighbors; we build bridges to other communities through service.
Orthodox Jews largely live in Chicago’s northern neighborhoods and suburbs. Most never have a reason to visit the South Side, an area plagued by gun violence.
To bridge this gap, Solu has built partnerships with black communities on the South Side of Chicago. With our own hands and tools, we built a new literacy center with Bright Star Community Outreach, a South Side agency, complete with a free library, tutoring and homework help, computers, and more. We planted lilies and picked up trash alongside at-risk youth on urban flower farms in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood. We distributed thousands of dollars worth of groceries in neighboring Bronzeville.
This past Tisha b’Av, while fasting, our volunteers provided free dinner for 100 kids and adults on a street corner afflicted by fatal shootings.
And during the Shmita year in 2022, our community partnered with Bright Star to release close to $2 million in medical debt burdening poor Chicagoans – a major kiddush hashem that taught the world about the Shmita and shemitat kesafim, releasing debts.
We ground our work in Torah and bring Torah with us whenever we volunteer. Imagine, for example, a recent afternoon learning Sforno and Rashi’s commentaries about the migrash (the urban farming belt of levitical cities), while weeding an urban flower farm alongside at-risk youth.
Meanwhile, it’s no secret that anti-semitism is on the rise in the US. Many Americans have never met an observant Jew and know little about Judaism. Solu volunteers believe the best antidote to anti-semitism is meeting a Jew face to face and seeing our community’s incredible dedication to giving.
Consider, for example, the Rohingya Muslim refugee community – a group whose story mirrors our own. Persecuted for their religion, victims of genocide in Myanmar, the Rohingya have found asylum in the US, and particularly Chicago. Many now live in West Rogers Park, just blocks from the Orthodox Jewish community in Rogers Park. Yet most have never had a meaningful interaction with their Jewish neighbors.
Solu is working to change that reality. Our volunteers have arranged coat drives for our Rohingya neighbors, ESL tutoring, and a shared community dinner at the Rohingya Cultural Center. When a fire damaged a Rohingya family’s apartment, we refurbished it within days. Our communities are meeting one another and pulling back the veil of unfamiliarity.
Answering Isaiah’s Call
The work we’re doing need not be unique to Chicago. Every Orthodox community can begin building bridges through chesed and tzedek.
This year, when Isaiah shows up on Yom Kippur, consider how to meet his demands. Maybe it’s time to partner with a local homeless shelter on a coat drive; to tutor local refugees; to begin building relationships with houses of worship in the inner city, finding out what their residents need most.
If we learn to share our bread widely, to clothe the naked, and free the oppressed, then our fasting on Yom Kippur will not be in vain.
“Then when you call, Hashem will answer,” Yishayahu says. “When you cry out, Hashem will say: Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9).