An annual call to justice

HIGH HOLIDAYS ESSAY

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Talmud teaches that the three types of shofar blasts heard on Rosh Hashanah represent three types of cries: the teruah (brief whimpering cries), the shevarim (groaning cries of medium length), and the tekia (long clear cries). Each cry represents a different kind of suffering in the world that we are called to internalize: the intermittent sob of those afflicted with disease and physical and mental suffering; the groan of an oppressed laborer in a cell, a factory and a field; and the plaintive keening of one entrenched in the deepest form of poverty in the developing world.

We listen to the voice of the shofar blast 100 times on each day of Rosh Hashanah to break through, even shatter, our spiritual obduracy. It is our annual call to responsibility.

Similarly in the Torah, we find that the shofar is sounded on three occasions: at war (Joshua 6:4), on Jubilee years where emancipated servants return home and land is given back to original owners (Leviticus 25:9), and at the revelation at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16). At three of the most dramatic moments of national exigency (inter-tribal justice, civic justice and the commanded justice of revelation), the summons to responsibility is proclaimed.

Today we live in a world where 2 billion people — more than 30 percent of the world’s population — live on $2 a day and 1 billion live on $1 a day. More than 6.5 million children younger than 5 died last year of hunger. Some 2.6 billion people live without sanitation, 1.3 billion live without access to safe drinking water and 1.3 billion live below the poverty line.

Our work is cut out for us, and the problems are not only overseas. On U.S. shores, about 90 million were denied access to the health protection they needed and about 36 million Americans live below the poverty line, including about 13 million children.

Hidden within the solemn cry of the shofar, though, we can find solace and, moreover, discover that Rosh Hashanah is a day of joy and of hope. In the liturgy preceding the initial blasts, the shofar cry is called “kol rina,” a sound of joy, because “God shall lead all nations” to rhythmic universal freedom. After the blasts, our prayers announce that “today is the birthday of the world.” That anniversary is a time of rejuvenation, of rededication to the human commitments that promise hope, growth and succor.

Let the human voices of Jewish community respond by sounding their own clarion call of accountability. A handful of innovative Jewish social justice organizations, globally and locally, are exercising and demanding such responsibility in the spheres of global poverty, the rights of domestic workers and prisoners, accessibility to health care and environmental protection.

These organizations are our representatives to the world; they speak and act for us. But they do not preclude our own advocacy for social justice or substitute for making our own voices heard in the offices of the powerful. To this degree, Rosh Hashanah is a day that celebrates not only world creation but also the creative potential in each of us: our agency and responsibility to create the circumstances for good and justice in the world.

Culturally, this is a moment when young citizens struggle to make meaning of the world around them. Often caught in a search for multiple identities, some find themselves stymied in the choice for a full commitment to any cause. One week, one might choose to protest the genocide in Darfur or petition for environmental safety and labor rights, while the following week his or her attention might be riveted on health care or prison reform. The conflicting demands, at times, can feel overwhelming and our own power to effect change concomitantly limited and meager.

And yet, to quote the great Jewish psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl quoting Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” In our search for “why” this year, the “how” can follow naturally. For ourselves, we can choose three shofar blasts to hear, three unique callings to respond to this year and to effect change with our mouths, hands, hearts and yes, wallets. The success will come, and it will be significant.

The sorrowful blast of the shofar is transformed to one of joy when we allow its echo to vibrate in the soul, leaving lasting impact. A timeless call can be heard from within the reverberations. Abraham was called upon as the first Jew because of a commitment to do justice, “laasot tzedakah u’mishpat.” This is the birthright and mandate of Jewish peoplehood that Jews have followed throughout the generations.

Yet we can no longer rest assured that peoplehood is unified through a monolithic stance on moral issues. In our diversity of enterprises, we may together recite Psalm 89:16: “Ashrei ha’am yodai terua: Praiseworthy is the nation that knows the cry of the shofar!”

For while our commitments may diverge, it is in the moment of silence and listening, the moment of revelation and summons to repair the world, that binds us perpetually together, “kulam agudat achat,” in the hope of a single — and just — society.

(Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder of Uri L’Tzedek (Awaken to Justice), a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City and a fourth-year moral psychology doctoral student at Columbia University.)

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