#TorahForTheResistance: Holy Boldness
Often times, we see the work of justice, of fighting for societal and systemic change, in contrast with the individual work of chesed, offering kindness and presence to those in pain, right before our eyes. Yet, in our new reality, I think that chesed and tzedek, seem inextricably entangled. The questions we ask about the injustices of our broader systems are deeply entwined with the demands of treating individuals in our families, communities and neighborhoods with sincere chesed. The threats brought upon by the new administration run deep. There are people to whom we are connected, closely and peripherally, who are undoubtedly more vulnerable now than they were four months ago. And there are people who were already vulnerable, in some cases, as a result of longstanding unjust policies, who may experience heightened anxiety in the face of mounting urgency.
In my work, as I engage local synagogue leaders in standing with immigrants and refugees, I initially thought that we were developing our resources and muscles to stand with those directly targeted by state-sponsored bigotry. Yet, I have encountered stories of Jewish families with loved ones who have been or are undocumented several times. In each case, their fellow community members have committed to standing with them in whatever way they need. This is a moment to welcome the stranger and stand with her, yes. But, we must also look more deeply within our four walls to understand the heightened needs and fears that are directly in our midst. It is not far from us, in fact, it is very close.
Personal needs, loneliness and pain are caught up in a knot of social, political and legal factors. As I learned from my teacher, Jessica Belasco, people with disabilities are often placed in a position of disproportionately needing to receive chesed because our world, our systems, our institutions, are not built to accommodate them. This is so for many marginalized groups. And now, kal V’chomer! Jews of color are more likely to get harassed, verbally or physically, on their way to or inside of work or shul by emboldened white supremacists. People in our communities with pre-existing conditions who are insured by the Affordable Care Act are now more vulnerable, and that vulnerability and fear is taking shape in their bones and bodies as well as their hearts, perhaps creating a more comprehensive need for love and support.
We must remember to train ourselves to habituate the work of chesed – of being present with people for whom a full healing or sense of repair is, perhaps, not an option. We must generously share resources with those close to us who have already been locked out of some of the support structures others of us have benefited from. We must train our instincts both for the global and for the local work. Supporting vulnerable individuals may demand more now – it may ask us and our communities to fill in the gaps that our social structures are supposed to fulfill.
I recall the courage of Shifra and Puah who risked it all to resist Pharoh’s decree to kill male, Israelite infants. Shemot Rabah describe the stand they took as above and beyond delivering babies. Inspired by the example of Avraham’s hospitality to strangers, the midwives also consoled fearful parents and collected needed resources from the wealthy families and shared them with the poorer ones. Subsequently, we read about Miriam’s individual act of resistance to ensure Moshe’s survival.
Our foremothers weighed the risks and chose resistance. And within those acts, they also chose to extend deep kindness to the vulnerable. Miriam’s choice to deliver Moshe in a wicker basket down the Nile, and then wait to ensure a safe end, strikes me as an act in service of justice as well as chesed.
This narrative also points to a very useful tool in carrying out the work of tzedek, as well as chesed – risk. In conversations with mentors, leaders and friends, I have been hearing and sharing a great deal about risk – about jumping into what is uncomfortable and dangerous without fully knowing all the consequences. As a young, economically-privileged, white Jew living in a progressive American city, I have not had to pay a high cost for my progressive convictions – which is true for many (though, certainly, not all) engaged in these conversations. But the price has gone up. And now, we must struggle with hard questions: What does effective resistance look like? What could happen if we disobey unjust laws? How fearful are we of not knowing the answers-of what could happen to us, to our vulnerable neighbors? Fearful enough to hold back, to stand still? What would it take to habituate ourselves toward risk, so that our clarity can outweigh our fear?
This is a time to get uncomfortable. Many of us are willing to do more now than we were before. And yet, we are also more scared now. Risk sits at the intersection of discomfort and action. Risk is what moves us forward through the darkness. And so we need to train ourselves to jump into the unknown, into what feels scary, if we know it is what we must do – just like Shifrah, Puah and Miriam. If we are going to become effective soldiers who can work with the right partners to salvage our shriveling democracy, we need to take a deep breath, and wade into the waters of uncertainty. And, if we are going to offer our own portions of the immense chesed needed in our communities and in our world, which is starting to more and more resemble resistance, we need to do the same.