Coming Face to Face with Poverty – Vayechi 5774

In the last few weeks, I have been approached on two separate occasions by people, both Christians, about our community getting involved in charitable causes.

The first was for limited involvement in Santa Clara county’s Faith-Based Reentry Collaborative.  For a criminal who has served his or her time, getting back into society can be extremely difficult.  There is a high rate of recidivism, of people not being able to get their lives back together and winding up back in prison.  People often don’t have the social resources to become self-sufficient.  Perhaps they have burned their bridges with family members who could take them in.  Or maybe their criminal record makes it difficult to find work.  They fall back in to unhealthy social circles.

As a society, we do a terrible job of helping people reintegrate into society in a healthy and productive way.  The county has recently begun to establish partnerships with local houses of worship that will welcome former prisoners into their communities and provide them with mentorship and support.  So far, three local churches have opened up reentry centers, and the county is still trying to figure out ways for other faith communities to help.

I was approached about getting the Sinai community involved in a limited way.  A newly released prisoner often has nobody to come and pick him or her up.  Furthermore, the prison does not issue clothing, so they wear what they came in with, which may not be sufficient.

Members of our community could help out in that critical first 24 hours by picking up a released prisoner at midnight, bringing a set of warm clothes, dropping him or her off at a motel which we paid for, and providing them with a meal.  There would not be any further obligations.  Just that one night.

The second program about which I was approached is called Refugee Foster Care.  It is sponsored by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.  It would involve a far more substantial commitment.  A family or individual would become foster parents for a child who has no parents, either because they were killed, or because they gave them up.  The kids are between 12 and 17 years of age and come from war-torn places around the world.

These two solicitations for our community’s involvement got me thinking.  Would Sinai members be interested in taking on causes like these – causes which bring us face to face former criminals, with children who have experience suffering most of us cannot even imagine?

Why is it that many Christian communities seem to be so motivated to get involved with human suffering in this way?  Why are we not involved in projects like these?  Projects of bringing people into our cars, or our homes.  Causes that demand us to give of ourselves?  Aren’t these essential Jewish values?

Our ancestors make the transition from a family into a people in this morning’s Parshah, Vayechi.  Jacob dies, and his sons carry out their promise to return his body to the land of Canaan to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah.  After the mourning period ends, the brothers are terrified that Joseph has only been behaving civilly to them out of respect for their father.  Now that he is gone, they worry that Joseph is going to take revenge for what they had done to him so many years before.  They send word to Joseph that their father had wished for him to forgive his brothers.

Joseph’s reaction surprises them.  He cries.  So they appear before him themselves, offering to become his slaves.  Joseph reassurs them that it was all part of God’s plan.  He has no intention whatsosever of taking revenge.  Not only that, he offers to help.  “And so, fear not.  I will sustain you and your children…” he says.

Joseph has introduced the idea that will be elaborated extensively throughout the Torah – that a Jew who is in the position to do so has an obligation to provide for other Jews who need help.

It is significant, perhaps, that the transformation into a people and Joseph’s commitment to care for them occurs outside of the Promised Land, in the Diaspora.  For millenia, Jewish communities in far-flung locations around the world found themselves in situations of having to take care of their own.

Until the last century, most Jewish communities were poor.  They also tended to be tightly knit.  Most people knew each other.  The community had to take on the responsibility of caring for its own poor – because there was nobody else to do so.

This was done in a variety of formal and informal ways.  There was a communal tzedakah fund called the kupah, with elected collectors and distributors.  It served as a kind of tax to cover communal expenses and provide a safety net for the poorest members of the community.

In addition, there was the tamchui, which was kind of an ad hoc soup kitchen.  The official collector might show up at your doorstep to collect a meal on behalf of another individual or family in the community who needed it.

At celebrations, the needy would be welcomed to attend.  They did not need an invitation.  People would go out of their way to invite poor people to their Shabbat and holiday tables.

Consider the passage that we recite at the beginning of the Passover seder.  We open the door and announce “Let all who are hungry come and eat…”  I don’t think it used to be a metaphorical statement, as it is for most of us today.  I think there were times, until very recently, when those who could afford it would invite those who could not to their dinner tables, including those who might have been homeless.

In Pirkei Avot (1:5), the collection of ethical teachings that was compiled nearly 2,000 years ago, Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem teaches “Let your home be wide open, and make the poor into members of your household.”

Just think about all of the folktales from our tradition, covering all periods of history except the modern era, in which poor Jews are welcomed into the homes of other Jews.  I assume that those stories exist because things like that used to actually happen on a regular basis.

Synagogues used to function kind of like homeless shelters, especially on Shabbat.  Travelers, poor students, and people who did not have anywhere to stay would sleep on the benches of the shul.  The community would often provide them with a meal.

As Jews, we used to come face to face with poverty regularly.  Thankfully, Jewish communities today are wealthier than ever before.  It’s not to say that there are not plenty of Jews who struggle financially.  There are.  It is undeniable, however, that the global Jewish community has thrived in contemporary times.

Our empasis on tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chasadim (act of lovingkindness) remains important, but the way that we express those values has shifted along with economic and social realities.  Jews continue to give a lot to charity, but instead of a mandatory tax on the members of our community, everything is voluntary.

With the almost total acceptance of Jews into American society, the proportion of funds donated to Jewish non-profit organizations has fallen dramatically, especially among younger generations.  Our giving is directed to causes that we care about.  But rarely is money or assistance given face to face to needy members of our own community.

Like in most synagogues, a minuscule portion of Sinai’s annual budget goes towards charitable activities and social action.

Sinai has had some great Tikkun Olam activities over the past couple of years.  But for the most part, our efforts have not put us into direct contact with poverty.  We have served several meals at local soup kitchens, but even then the contact with the homeless is limited.

We have not invited the homeless into our synagogue.  We have not sponsored programs that would assign members of our community to be mentors to people who could really benefit from that kind of guidance, whether former prisoners, kids who cannot read, or refugees.

How would we respond if someone who was obviously homeless walked into the synagogue during Shabbat services?  Would we welcome that person with open arms?  Would we be worried about safety?  Would we ask him to leave?

In the Bar Area, there are churches, and even some synagogues, that house rotating homeless shelters.  Why not us?

There are other religious traditions that seem to place a much greater theological emphasis on direct service to the poor.  For example, there is a story in the New Testament of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples’ feet.  The new Pope, Francis, recently made news when he washed the feet of 12 juvenile prisoners.  Back when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he would frequently wash the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.  It is about humbling oneself in service to other human beings.  For Christian communities who are trying to literally follow Jesus’ example, having that direct contact with the poor makes sense, theologically.

For most of Jewish history, our communities could not afford to direct so much of our charitable activities beyond our own communities.  Facing so much discrimination, Jews had to take care of their own – and they did a phenomenal job of it.  But now that the direct need is either not as great, or just more hidden, what should we be doing?

My goal this morning is to raise questions.  Should we be devoting considerable resources to directly serve those who need it most?  Should we open up our synagogue, or even our homes, to people who would otherwise never enter our lives?  Should we give substantively of ourselves to non-Jews?

The answer is not easy.  Jewish communities around America are struggling to retain and attract sufficient members and funds to remain viable.  Can we afford to send our limited resources outside our community?

When asked, American Jews seem to recognize the importanec of serving humanity.  A 2001 study asked American Jews about involvement in this kind of work.  It found that around ninety percent of American Jews agreed to the following statements:

  • “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups”
  • “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”
  • “Jews’ involvement in social justice causes is one good way to strengthen ties with other groups in society.”

The difficulty is, it is possible to feel just as strongly about working on behalf of the underserved without attributing those motivations to Judaism.  I do not need to be Jewish to help the poor.  What is it from our own tradition that would compel us to give so much of ourselves to non-Jews?

It is an open question.  The invitations stand  As a Jewish community, do we want to help human beings who have made some wrong decisions in life get back on track after they have been released from jail?  Do we want to encourage and support Jews in our community who are willing to foster a teen-ager whose life has been torn apart by war?

I would like to hear from you – either today during kiddush, or some other time.  What should we be doing as a kehillah kedoshah, as a holy Jewish community?

When Joseph makes the commitment to his brothers, “fear not, I will sustain you and your children,” he is committing to serve his own siblings.

In the 21st century, who are our brothers and sisters?

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