Parshat Re'eh: Make Your Social Justice Practice As Structured As Your Prayer and Your Study
When I have free time, I will study.
How many of you have said this to yourself?
This is a line from Pirke Avot, a book of rabbinic teachings in the Mishna from the year 200.
It actually is phrased as if predicting that people will say this.
וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:
A pretty spot on prediction. 2000 years later, we are still dealing with procrastination. I saw this article in the New Yorker entitled “What type of procrastinator are you?” and here were the options:
There are lots of reasons we might avoid doing something that is good for us. The rabbinic tradition, unlike the New Yorker, though don’t go into the psychology as to why. Rather, they offer a solution: make a fixed time for your studies.
I love the fixed study opportunities we have in our community as a congregation:
Limuds on Fridays at 5:30PM and Sundays at 5PM
Parsha study for adults on Thursdays at 7:30PM
Parsha study for kids on Sundays at 10AM
Having personal study practices is also important and many people in our congregation have them. Debbie Steinig takes part in the practice of Daf Yomi, learning some Talmud every day. I have a couple friends that I study the Torah portion with and that I am also studying a section of Talmud with.
Having a regular schedule, our tradition teaches us, makes it more likely to get done.
I think this is why there is such an emphasis on regular prayer. Even in communities that people don’t pray three times a day, or even once a day, there is still a weekly service.
This is the heartbreak that we feel of not being able to meet together at our normal times right now. Our structure is disrupted. We have tried to do the best we can at building a new structure and while it hasn’t worked perfectly, since the pandemic we have met every friday night and every saturday night. We have done a pretty fabulous job of keeping our prayer schedule fixed.
But what does any of this have to do with our Torah portion?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh, we learn about a few mitzvot related to the Levite. The levite is a special category of person because they, by definition cannot own land. They do receive other structural benefits in society, but they are ultimately dependent on the rest of the people to provide their food, just like strangers orphans and widows who also didn’t own land.
In one law, the people are told to separate out a portion of their crop to be eaten during the festivals. Once out of every three years, though, that separated out section is not meant for festivals but rather is to be left in your settlements.
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.
This might look like it’s about the giving tzedakah in modern terms but in combination with a different mitzvot in this parsha, I think it is also about action.
We read that God requires that the landowners must not just celebrate but most also celebrate with their households:
וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֮ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ אַתֶּ֗ם וּבְנֵיכֶם֙ וּבְנֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעַבְדֵיכֶ֖ם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהַלֵּוִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּשַֽׁעֲרֵיכֶ֔ם כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין ל֛וֹ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃
you shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your sons and daughters and with your male and female slaves, along with the Levite in your settlements, for he has no land inheritance; his land inheritance is with you.
I think for us, the obligation is beyond just giving food. It is about rejoicing together, building community together.
I believe the message for us today is that social action is not just about giving money but also about action.
And our social action initiatives need to be just as fixed our prayer and just as fixed as our study.
Perhaps that is in part a personal project for you. I care a lot about addressing injustice in the prison system. I actually signed up to be a penpal for someone who is serving a life sentence in prison. I plan to take half an hour every month before coordinating committee meetings to write my letter. I invite anybody who wants to to join me. That is one way that I am structuring justice work into my life in a way that feels manageable.
At points, we as a community have been great at this—volunteering at Real Food Farms, at Dee’s Place. But it’s time for us to establish our next step, to come together to work on an issue together, to form a new volunteer routine together as a community. Perhaps we should work together on a Get Out The Vote campaign before the election in November. Perhaps we should get behind Jews United For Justice’s campaign for police accountability. Perhaps we should commit to fighting food insecurity in Baltimore.
I cannot decide what this should be for us. We need to figure it out together. So I’m creating space for us to come together and identify what is important to us and what a reasonable sized fixed commitment might be for each of us.
So I conclude by asking: how should we structure justice work into the life of our community so that it is not just something we say we do but that we know we do because it is a part of our lives in a concrete, fixed, ongoing way?
And what is your part in making that happen?
Whether you are a classic procrastinator, a justifying procrastinator, or a meta procrastinator, this is not something we can wait on any longer. But we cannot wait until we have free time.
שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה
Perhaps we will not have free time.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.