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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Why do people of faith engage in social justice?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 9

Avraham and Sarah pitched their tent in the middle of the desert.  It had four entrances – one on each side – so that they would immediately spot travelers and invite them in for a foot-wash and a meal.  Following the three-course spread, the guests would express their heartfelt appreciation to their hosts.
“Don’t thank us,” Sarah and Avraham would respond, “Thank the One Above who has provided this delicious meal.  Here’s a bentcher (Grace after Meal booklet).  You can find the bentching after the Zemiros (Shabbos songs).  We even have the NCSY Arabic transliterated version if you need!”
“Sorry,” would often come the reply, “We’re bentchaphobic.  Had you told us we’d have to bentch, there’ no way we would have washed (our feet).”
“Well if that’s how you want you play this game,” Avraham and Sarah would say, “Here’s your bill.”

The guests would examine the bill in shock horror:
Bread $200
Cheese $170
Meat $450
Salad $80
Foot-wash $700

“What on earth are these crazy prices?” they would yell.
“They’re not crazy,” replied Avraham and Sarah calmly, “Where else in the desert are you going to get a three-course meal?  Now, we’ll ask you one more time: would you like to pay or bentch?”
And inevitably, ten times out of ten, the guests would turn their eyes Heavenward and bless the Almighty.

Rabbi Yitzchak taught: Anyone who gives a coin to a pauper is blessed with six blessings.  But one who appeases him with words, is blessed with eleven blessings!

Rabbi Yitzchak’s teaching is familiar to many of us.  Literally, he is telling us that it’s not enough to give money to a needy person; you need to make every effort to make them feel like a mensch (human being) again.  Just because they’ve fallen on hard times doesn’t mean that they should be treated with any less dignity than an individual that has merited material bounty.  Next time you give tzedakah, instead of awkwardly writing a cheque and looking the other way, ask them about their family and if there’s any other way you can help.

But Rabbi Yitzchak’s teaching runs much deeper than simply making a person feel good.  Every material giving opportunity in life is also a spiritual giving opportunity.  Avraham and Sarah epitomized chesed – lovingkindness.  But it wasn’t chesed in a vacuum; it was chesed with the ultimate goal of bringing people closer to Heaven.  In Rabbi Yitzchak’s words: along with the charity came some words of encouragement, a reminder that the Almighty was watching over them, no matter how challenging the road ahead appeared.

That’s why Avraham’s children have always stood at the forefront of chesed initiatives.  But when we engage in social action programs, it’s important to follow in our forefather Avraham’s footsteps and let people know what’s driving us.  We’re doing this, not just because we’re nice people, but because there’s a G-d that runs the world and sent us on this mission to make His world a better place.  That way we inspire others to start thinking about Hashem and invite Him into their lives, hopefully to inspire yet others in turn.

Avraham and Sarah’s program might sound a little contrived.  After all, weren’t they in essence forcing people to believe in G-d?   But if you think about it, their method was far tamer than most other religions’ attempts to earn adherents.  Tragically, our people know all too well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of religious coercion.

Most people do not take the time to think about G-d and the big questions about life, unless they have a reason to.  The incredible thing about Avraham and Sarah is that what other religious leaders did with the sword, they did with a good Shabbos meal.  That’s what our Sages mean when they say that our patriarch and matriarch were the masters of chesed – not only did they dedicate their lives to chesed, they understood the awesome power of chesed to channel spirituality into people’s lives.

And that’s what programs like Birthright and Maimonides do.  Nobody can be bribed to believe in Hashem, Judaism, the Jewish people, or the State of Israel.  But with a bit of coaxing, people can be convinced to consider ideas they may never have given any thought to in the past.

Chesed, or social justice, is integral to Judaism; it’s one of the pillars upon which the world stands.  But Avraham and Sarah taught us that while it’s an end in itself, it’s also a means to an end and that chesed is the best route to chochmah (wisdom).  May you constantly seek chesed opportunities and be a shining example of the Almighty’s lovingkindness to all!