A Balanced Life, Redux

Now that we’ve passed another Day of Judgment, we can ask ourselves what are we going to do with the life that we’ve been granted? Do we live up to our values, our ideals? Since my teens, I’ve been passionate about worldly causes, but it has always been a challenge to maintain the delicate balance between the sacred and the secular.

Dan Loeb, publisher of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, alerted me to an offer by national HIAS of a new set of posters for Sukkot. According to HIAS, “65 million refugees and displaced people still wander the earth in search of a safe place to call home.” The posters feature photos and narratives of five refugees, including the poster below of a four-year-old Syrian boy named Rawan.

I‘ve been torn about adding secular issues to the Jewish holidays. I recall that the American Jewish World Service offered their version of the Four Children to the Pesach seder: the Activist Child, the Skeptical Child, the Indifferent Child, and the Uninformed Child Who Does Not Know How To Ask. I never did use them.

Liberal Jews would say that our highest goal is tikkun olam (repairing the world). The goal of Torah-observant Jews, my rabbi reminds me, is to become closer to God, HaShem. So, what is a socially conscious Jew to do? After all, we’re taught that the Prophet Isaiah blasted the Israelites for empty piety, which is the Haftorah selection for Yom Kippur morning.

Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue business, and [from] all your debtors you exact [payment]. Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness. Do not fast like this day, to make your voice heard on high. Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man’s afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord?

Is this not the fast I will choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness, and to let out the oppressed free, and all perverseness you shall eliminate. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide.

I’ve encountered this kind of dilemma before: a friend who frets over using too many candles for Chanukah — her family minhag (custom) is to light a separate chanukiyah for every member of the household — or keeping lights on for Shabbat or the chagim (holy days). I’ve long chafed at the masculine tone of our tefillot (prayers) and the absence of women in the Orthodox liturgy. How to juggle our different values?

My rabbi taught me that we don’t mix the holy with the secular, as important as social justice is. This is because passionate people can become zealots, touting their values over all other ones. Haven’t we met feminists who bash all men? Animal rights activists who destroy private property to proclaim their superior stance?

With age, I’ve learned to temper my social justice, feminist, environmentalist zeal. No longer do I tell my dinner companions that their food is of animal carcasses (as I did once in college, but there was an actual carcass on the coffee table). I daven (pray) in an Orthodox shul, but I visit my in-laws for Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, so I can participate with women reading from and dancing with the Torah in a shul that lists itself as “open Orthodox.” I keep lights on for Shabbat and the chagim — at least the ones not on a timer — but I am comforted by the carbon footprint trade-off of not driving or using electronics. Finally, I will not use a poster for Sukkot that publicizes the plight of refugees, although I will continue to work for the resettlement of refugees. Instead, our family sukkah reflects my dual heritages, featuring Chinese lanterns.

HIAS Poster

HIAS Poster

May the Jewish year 5777 be one of good tidings and good deeds, in a delicate balance of the timeless sacred and the contemporary.


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