Hillel famously taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be
for me? If I am only for myself, what am
I? If not now, when?”
While the gist of this teaching is fairly obvious—finding a
balance between self-interest and communal responsibility—a subtle reading
reveals much more. It is especially
critical to note the shift in pronouns from the first question to the
second. One would expect Hillel to have
asked, “If I am only for myself, who
am I?” But the who changes to what—suggesting
that when we don’t tend to the needs of others we become something less than
entirely human. Narcissism and greed
distort our core humanity.
This is worth remembering in the aftermath of the 2016
legislative session. Once again, our
representatives refused to extend health care to Idaho’s poorest citizens. Then, adding insult to injury, Governor Otter
called a press conference to affirm that callous decision. Senator Jim Rice of Caldwell captured the
prevailing ethos of the Idaho Republican party when he declared: “There is no right to health care. Not one of
those who left the bloody tracks in the snow at Valley Forge did so for free
If I am
only for myself, what am I? Apparently,
for starters, a Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives.
tradition, the saving of human life is known as pikuach nefesh. This
obligation overrides virtually every other religious consideration. When a person is in danger, it is permissible
to violate almost every commandment in the Torah to rescue them. We derive this imperative from the Torah’s
teaching: “You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus
19:16). By this understanding, health
care is absolutely a basic human right, and denying it to those in need is disgraceful. Idaho’s leaders are, indeed, standing idle
while the most vulnerable of the citizens they serve are bleeding. When Idahoans die needlessly, due to lack of
access to healthcare, as too many surely will in the coming year, let there be
no doubt: the bloodguilt is on the heads of those who voted to deny them.
not just bad policy—it is moral bankruptcy.
our legislature and governor.
on us, for continuing to elect them to high office.
I’m proud to announce an extraordinary new fundraising
opportunity for CABI, thanks to America’s first serious Jewish presidential
candidate, Bernie Sanders.
During his recent campaign swing through Boise, I was
blessed to receive a personal visit from Senator Sanders. After we schmoozed for a while about
important things like our shared dedication to excellent posture, our
conversation turned to Idaho politics. I
described the lamentable record of our chief executive and legislature on a
whole host of issues: their failure to add the words extending protection to
LGBT citizens, consistent underfunding of public education, refusal to expand
healthcare for low income Idahoans, continuous harassment of women’s
reproductive freedom, and dogged determination to ensure the right of every
lunatic in the state to own and operate an entire arsenal of assault rifles.
Senator Sanders listened with remarkable empathy and then
decided to act on our behalf. On the
spot, he picked up his phone and called his old friends (and longtime Jewish
activists and philanthropists) Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben and
Jerry’s Ice Cream fame. He told them
about CABI’s commitment to human rights and they, in turn, immediately agreed to
add two new treats to their line, for sale in supermarkets in the Gem State and
beyond: Chock Full O’ Nuts Legislative Lemon Sorbet and Bananas Butch Otter
Pops. True to their names, both of
these treats will be full of nothing but artificial ingredients and empty
calories; Ben and Jerry guarantee that they will be certifiably unhealthy to
everyone except radical patriot survivalists living off the grid in Outer
The good news? Fifty
percent of all profits from these confections will go to fund CABI social
action projects. There is one catch,
though: this is a true partnership, so we will be producing Chock Full O’ Nuts
and Bananas Butch Otter Pops right in our own CABI kitchen, with volunteer
labor provided by our own membership.
That’s right—we need you, CABI members, to sign up for ice cream making,
preferably once a week. I promise that
it will be fun and satisfying, raising valuable dollars for a good cause.
So please join me in the kitchen and, as Ben and Jerry and
Bernie all put it:
Every person should hold two truths, one in each pocket, and
take them out according to the need of the moment. One should say, “The world was created for my
sake” and the other should say, “I am dust and ashes.”
I have always loved this teaching but over the years, I have
also come to realize that it is, like most Jewish wisdom, more complicated than
it first appears. The challenge is that
the “need of the moment” is not always obvious and may, in fact, be
paradoxical. Someone who seems to be
acting arrogantly—and therefore in need of the “dust and ashes” truth—may, in
fact, be overcompensating for a deeply-rooted insecurity that actually calls
for “the world was created for my sake.”
And sometimes when we find ourselves in the throes of depression, an
awareness of our mortality—“dust and ashes”—can offer a perspective that is
comforting, much like listening to the blues.
Knowing which truth to pull out at any given time is a fine—and essential—art.
This week’s Torah portion, which begins the book of
Leviticus, opens with the word that bestows its name, Vayikra—God called. . . . It
starts with the Holy One calling to Moses to teach him the laws that he will
transmit to the Jewish people. But there
is an interesting anomaly in the way the word Vayikra is written in the Torah scroll. The last letter, aleph, is inscribed in a small, undersized script, as if it is a
sort of afterthought.
The Rabbis offer an abundance of commentary on this
phenomenon but my favorite connects that aleph
with the ego, as it is the first letter in the word anochi—“I” or “self.” Like R.
Simcha Bunam’s teaching, this reminds us that our ability to hear and respond
to the call of the Divine depends on having our ego in proper proportion. If we have too much ego, we are so full of
ourselves that we leave no room for God (or anyone else). If we have too little ego, we assume
ourselves unworthy of being called in the first place, and shy away from the
encounter. We can only harken if we possess
a strong sense of self that is balanced by compassion and genuine curiosity
about others. When we can see that we
are, simultaneously, dust and ashes AND the reason the world was created, then
God calls to us and we respond, Hineni—Here
I am, ready for service.
This week, as we begin the book of Vayikra, consider: How can you better prepare to hear the call of
the sacred in your life—and respond to it?
According to all that the Eternal had commanded Moses, so the
children of Israel did all the work. Then Moses
looked over all the work, and indeed they had done it; as the Eternal had commanded, just so they
had done it. And Moses blessed them.
Countless commentators, both ancient and contemporary, have
noted the literary links between the completion of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary-tent, described in this
week’s portion, Pekudey and the
creation narrative in Genesis. The mishkan is a microcosm, a world in
miniature—a modest human echo of God’s grand design.
There is, however, a significant difference between the
model and the thing itself. With the mishkan, everything falls perfectly into
place, exactly according to plan. Later,
even in the worst of times, when the Israelites rebel and fall and fail, this
space remains a beautiful, safe, and secure shelter for the Divine
Presence. Would that this were true for
the wider world! As Rabbi Shai Held
notes: “In reality - and according
to the Torah itself - the world as we find it falls far short of God's hopes
and expectations. Instead of a world in which human dignity is real, we live in
a world in which barbarism and cruelty all too often rule the day, in which
unspeakable suffering pervades every corner of the globe. . .”
So what do we
make of the mishkan in a world so
often gone awry? Perhaps it is meant as
a powerful and essential reminder of the way things were meant to be—and might
yet become if we can learn to work together to create justice, compassion, and
peace. As Professor Jon Levenson notes, the
world is supposed to be just like the mishkan:
"A place in which the reign of God is visible and unchallenged, and God’s holiness
is palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive."
It is hard work
to repair what is broken in the world—and in ourselves as well. Sometimes we need to take time to renew our
vision of what we are working toward. We
seek havens—sanctuaries—that remind us what we are laboring to achieve and why
it matters. Our experience of God and
sacredness in brief moments and small spaces can restore our dedication to the
larger effort when our strength, faith, and courage might otherwise falter.
consider: where do you find the spiritual resources that fuel your efforts to
bring healing in your life? What are
your sanctuaries? And how do you take
the wisdom and security you find in those times and places out into the wider