Psalm 68

… the father of orphans, the champion of widows, God restores the lonely to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound (68:6-7)

Orphans and widows – in the Biblical paradigm, these categories represent society’s most vulnerable. The Psalmist pictures God as the great protector of those on the fringes of society. This contrasts with Exodus 22:21, in which we are warned against mistreating the vulnerable, “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan,” and Deuteronomy 27:19, which curses one who does not uphold the rights of the widows and orphans. Three times in Deuteronomy 24 and 26, the Torah commands a special tzedakah obligation to take care of widows and orphans. If God is in charge of protecting the vulnerable, then clearly God has delegated the responsibility to us.

It is our obligation to watch out and protect those who live their lives on the economic or social margins of society. Single mothers are economically vulnerable. Children without fathers in their homes are vulnerable to fall prey to gang and other criminal activity. To expand the pool of the vulnerable – gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens; people with mental illnesses; people who have served time in prison, especially those whose crime labels them as a sexual offender; and those who are homeless. God may be in charge of restoring them to their homes, safe and sound, but it is our wallets, tax dollars, willing hearts and helping hands that will make it happen.

Psalm 49

Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when his household goods increase. (49:17)

The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) speaks of material blessings, but typical of such Torah material, it speaks about the recipient of such blessings in the second person plural, rather than singular. The community is blessed with rain and fertility, not the individual. There might be many reasons that an individual may become wealthy: Intelligence, business acumen, hard work, family connections, and just plain good luck. An individual who fails to prosper might be making poor choices or business decisions, might not be working hard enough, or might simply have run into bad luck. It is not the case, nor should it be, that God micromanages the economy so that good people consistently accumulate more wealth than bad people.

Why, though, does the Psalmist say, “Do not be afraid …”? What is there to fear? The Psalmist is sharing with us a very useful tidbit of theology … do not be afraid that your relative lack of prosperity compared with your rich neighbor is a sign that God loves your neighbor and hates you. Individual prosperity or success is not in and of itself a sign of God’s blessing any more than individual poverty or failure is a sign of God’s curse. A world in which one could easily rank people’s relative worth in God’s eyes based on their pocketbooks would indeed be a world to fear. It would be no different than the Nazi’s ranking of people’s relative worth based on the color of their skin and eyes, with blond-haired, blue-eyed aryans on top.

When a person becomes rich, heavy with household goods, that is the time to rejoice in your neighbor’s good fortune and hope that the community, its cultural and religious and social institutions, its hospitals and libraries and schools, and its communal celebrations, are the recipients of tzedakah (charitable) contributions!

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – February, 2013

Over the past year or so we have heard two Sanctuary Shabbat presentations addressing the problem of homelessness in Grand Rapids. Both speakers, one from Family Promise of Grand Rapids, the other from the Salvation Army Booth Family Services program of the Salvation Army, spoke about programs in partnership with congregations. Family Promise organizes temporary shelters in congregations, as well as giving support, resources, training, and mentorship as families look for permanent housing and employment. The Booth Family Services places families in apartments with various kinds of support including financial, gradually decreasing over a six month period of time until they are entirely self-sufficient.

Both programs have been successful, and both are looking to build more partnerships with congregations. Family Promise needs Support Congregations to help the Host Congregations (who actually host families for a week at a time sleeping in their buildings). The Booth Family Services needs congregations to “adopt” and support specific families that would be assigned to them.

As a congregation, we might support either program financially, but my thinking right now is that we should participate in one of the program through our volunteer efforts. I am looking for one or two people to act as the point person(s), to help me decide which program we should volunteer with and be the contact person for the organization to identify a volunteer assignment and publicize that within the congregation. I also want to build a list of at least a dozen people who are willing to help the families, go to the shelter location, tutor children, take people to appointments, cook meals, or do any of the other tasks that are necessary to support the program.

If you would like to be the chair or co-chair of this project, or if you would like to be one of the volunteers should we as a congregation add this to our gemilut hasadim activities, please let me know.

Our responsibility as members of Congregation Ahavas Israel, as Jews, and as human beings goes beyond coming to Shabbat services, studying Torah, keeping kosher, and serving on committees (although these things are important). We have an obligation, a mitzvah, to help feed, cloth, and shelter another human being who is suffering. I am deeply discomforted by people who hold up signs at intersections reading, “hungry, homeless, jobless, please help.” I address the discomfort as I can, by giving money, usually to organizations that work in effective and lasting ways to end problems of hunger and homelessness. Sometimes, though, giving money is not enough. Giving of ourselves, our time, is also needed. Please join me as a Congregation to address the problem of homelessness.

***

I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • • I have been working on planning spring activities, including lining up Sanctuary Shabbat speakers, planning a series of educational workshops, and working on the Purimsheil.
  • • I have been working on recruiting teens and middle school students for the upcoming Kinnusim in Columbus, Dayton, and at Camp Tamarack, and accompanied two Kadima (Middle School) age students to Columbus as their advisor.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – March/2011

My colleague Rabbi Brad Artson gave a talk to rabbis recently in which he said that rabbis need to get over their traditional aversion to dealing with congregational financial issues.  Fundraising and other financial issues in an institution of Torah are as sacred as the study of Torah itself. Therefore, for the second month in a row, I find myself writing about how we make decisions about giving.

These thoughts were sparked by an article in the Jerusalem Post about the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the top 50 givers in 2010.  Five of the top six are Jewish, and at least 19 of the top 53 (there were three ties) are Jewish.

While Jews have reason to be proud of the accomplishments of some of our fellow members of the tribe, we also have cause for concern.  George Soros and Michael Bloomberg, numbers 1 and 2 on the list who gave a combined total of about $600 million, less than $2 million of that went to Jewish causes.  Overall, Jews give only about 25% of their charitable gifts to Jewish causes.

While I am not arguing that 100% of our giving should go to Jewish causes, I pose a question:  If Jews do not give to UJC, the Synagogue, JNF, the Jewish Braille Institute, Israel Guide Dogs for the Blind, Hadassah Hospital, and other worthy Jewish causes, who will?  Doesn’t it make more sense for 75% of our giving to stay within the “family” rather than only 25%?  When we give to relief efforts, such as the Haitian earthquake, the 2004 Tsunami in East Asia, Hurricane Katrina, we like to channel our money through Jewish organizations.

As you are doing your taxes for 2010, take a careful look at your charitable giving.  Ask yourself whether it reflects the religious and communal priorities of your life to which you aspire.  Ask yourself whether you have paid enough attention to the institutions which nurtured and continue to nurture your Jewish identity, which take care of Jews in need all around the world.  Imagine how different our Jewish world would be if even half that the $3.3 billion given by the top 50 had gone to Jewish causes.