Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue



Abby J. Leibman



A dvar torah about justice and community-building through a lens of hunger. Delivered in March 2012 at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA.


When I was asked for a title for my remarks this morning, I suggested "tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue - but is that enough?" I confess that when I framed the question I fully intended to answer “no, of course not!” for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But the more I considered what I wanted to say, the more I became convinced that the answer is in fact “yes.” A resounding yes. In fact, it’s not only enough – it is everything. If the Torah is to be as relevant today as it was over 5,000 years ago, and if these words are as central to our beliefs and our teachings as I have learned they are, then everything – everything - in the Torah is about how to build a just world – how to integrate the pursuit of justice into all we learn, all we work on and all we build. This includes tikkun olam – repairing the world (which is of course what I was going to juxtapose to tzedekah – arguing that one alone is not enough and both must be a priority.) Instead, I have come to believe that tikkun olam, repeated every day in the Aleinu is not necessarily an end in itself but a means to an end: justice.

This week’s Parsha: Vayakhel and Pekudei begin with Moses addressing the Israelites following the events at Mount Sinai: “On six days work may be done, but the seventh day, they should observe a Sabbath for God by refraining from work…”

The remainder of the verses are a detailed description of the building of the mishkon – actually exhaustingly detailed – the value, import and meaning of that description I will leave for others to explore.  It’s the opening of the parsha that I want to draw to your attention this morning.

Several commentaries I’ve read note that the juxtaposition of 6 days of work and one day of rest convey a powerful message: the work done before and after the Sabbath are also of the highest value and that work too is a mitzvah. Indeed without the work days, the importance of a Sabbath can become a distinction without a difference. If Shabbat is a call for rest on Saturdays, then it is also a call for work, for activity, for action on other days.

Just what is this work that we are called to do? Certainly it’s how we earn our livings. Perhaps we can also look to this parsha to reflect on just how important and central to our lives is the work of building – in the parsha it’s the mishkon – literally building with gold, silver, acacia wood, stones, wool and linen – investing our riches in a building of great meaning. But it must also be the work of building our lives and families, and the work of building a community. In order to fill these with meaning, we must also invest our riches in them.

The riches we bring to this work are not only financial but also creativity, compassion, passion and wisdom. These intangibles are what take building a community from the ordinary to acts of tikkun olam and then to the heights of tzedekah. We are working together to build a community that is just and one of which we can feely justly proud.

MAZON was founded 25 years ago by a small group of Jewish leaders convinced that American Jews could make a difference in the lives of hungry people everywhere. Since the beginning, MAZON has understood and embraced its dual responsibility: to respond to hungry peoples’ immediate need for nutritious food and to work towards long-term solutions that banish food insecurity once and for all.

Many of us are among those who so generously make donations to or volunteer at food pantries and other hunger programs. People are putting food in their bellies because of our involvement in these activities. Surely that’s enough?

Providing meals has an enormous and immediate impact on the hunger that far too many people experience. It’s vital and it’s an imperative for those 50 million people who are hungry today. But what about tomorrow? Even if you spent $1.184 – the program budget of the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization – you could feed every hungry person in America 16 meals – three meals a day for five days. And the 6th day, then what? Our commitment cannot end here.

Ending food insecurity in America requires not only that we feed people, but also that we encourage our government not to weaken the safety net on which so many people have to rely. It seems to me that too many of us have forgotten what our government can, and should do. Years ago, Hubert Humphrey reminded us that, “Government is the means by which all the people acting together, do for themselves those things that the people cannot do one by one. That is the great principle of government.” It is also the great principle of community. And it’s clearly time to be reminded of this principle yet again.

America, through our government, must accept responsibility to take care of its citizens. Just as a community pulls together in a crisis and undertakes to support those who are most vulnerable among them; so too must our government help us to help those who need us most. In this economy that means securing a safety net that provides vital basic subsistence to communities across this nation. It means we must support and provide adequate funding for effective nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, which have successfully prevented us from the kind of devastation and starvation we’re now witnessing in the Horn of Africa. Ending food insecurity in America also requires that we do more to expand access to and participation in these programs – to ensure that every person who qualifies receives the support to which she or he is entitled. And it requires that we do all we can to address the causes of food insecurity so that tomorrow is better than today.

The Israelites wanted the mishkon they built to reflect the best they had to offer and they worked together selflessly to build a tabernacle worthy of God. In our work together to repair the world – to make our work a mitzvah, we too must work selflessly to bring the best we have to offer to our policies, laws and practices ensuring that we have built a community of which we can be proud and a world that is just.

Shabbat shalom.

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