By Jacob Sztokman
Shavuot is my favorite holiday, because it reminds me why I’m doing the work that I’m doing. Three years ago, I dropped everything and opened up an organization called Gabriel Project Mumbai to provide nutrition, health, hygiene and literacy support to children living in the slums of Mumbai. These are children on the margins of the margins of society, the ones most people have given up on, the ones whose misery or death barely register on the global radar as an actual event. Even as one third of all children in the world under five years old who die from malnutrition or preventable health issues live in India, it seems as if most of the world has given up on them.
Sometimes, when I describe what I do to fellow Jewish landsmen, I get blank looks. I also get rebuked: “There are so many needy Jews – why are you helping those people out there?” As if it’s a zero-sum game, as if by helping poor Indian children it means that I don’t care about Jewish children. I can answer these questions with explanations about relative poverty versus acute poverty, or by citing Maimonides’ approach to the alleviation of poverty. Even when I do, I sometimes find these kinds of conversations hard. Nevertheless, they also give me an opportunity to reaffirm the conviction in myself about why I should care about the acute suffering of other human beings, even if they are not of my “tribe,” about why I’m not betraying my own people by helping alleviate global poverty among children, but rather I’m living out the essence of Torah.
Shavuot helps reaffirm this commitment. On Shavuot, the time when we celebrate the giving of the Torah, we read the story of Ruth and Naomi, and I know that the answer to all the naysayers is right here. One of the most poignant and compassionate passages in the entire Bible is when Naomi tells Ruth to return to her Moabite family and leave Naomi alone. Ruth, in turn, refuses. Despite the fact that Naomi has been transformed from being a well-to-do Judean matriarch to a homeless, widowed, childless pauper, Ruth stays with her. Naomi has gone from a position at the top of society to one on the margins. And Ruth, who is not even Jewish and at some points in the story is not even known by name, has taken up her perch on the margins of the margins. Despite that , she does not give up on Naomi – as her sister-in-law Orpah did (Orpah’s name literally means ‘the back of the neck’, giving a visual image of literally turning her back). Ruth is not swayed by the “Don’t bother with her” argument. She has chosen this place next to Naomi as an act of loving, courageous defiance. She is sticking with Naomi. And she’s doing it not because she has been commanded to but rather out of love. She loves Naomi – pauper and all. Ruth’s declaration, “Wherever you go, I go,” is in fact one of the most beautiful love poems ever written. And it was written to a homeless woman.
This act of bringing love to the person who is most invisible in society forms the basis of the Jewish ethos. It is this ethos that Naomi then teaches Boaz, reminding him to care for the nameless, non-Jewish woman on his property. And it is from that union between Boaz and Ruth that we get the Davidic lineage, and from which traditionally we – and the world – will one day get redemption. The central message in this story is to remember that those who are deemed invisible, the ones who society has given up on – Jewish or not Jewish – are human, too. They are worthy of love and care.
This is the mission that drives me to work with the children in the slums of India, some the most vulnerable children in the world, living in acute conditions that are impossible to even imagine. It’s a Jewish mission, for sure. In fact, one of the most interesting reactions I get is from some Hindus who are tacitly opposed to helping extricate the poor from the slums. “It’s their karma,” I am sometimes told. “You are interfering with karma.” It is significant to note that a Hindu colleague who also works for an NGO serving vulnerable populations rejects the ‘karma’ argument with a powerful saying, “Nobody knows what the karma of others may be; all I know is that it is my karma is to help.”
That response is very telling, and it is a reminder of the essence of Judaism. The Torah doesn’t necessarily believe in accepting that some people are fated to suffer. Jews are taught that when we witness suffering, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels, enjoy our privilege and luxury, and proclaim that this is God’s way. God, according to my understanding of the Torah, does not want people to suffer. God wants people to help one another suffer less. This should be humanity’s way, it definitely is the Jewish way.
This holiday, I will read the beautiful book of Ruth and I will smile. I will thank Ruth and Naomi for reminding me not to forsake those who are on the margins of the margins of society, for inspiring me to believe that I can affect someone else’s life for the better, and for enabling human-kind to help bring the redemption closer.
Jacob Sztokman is a former hi-tech marketing manager turned social entrepreneur. He founded Gabriel Project Mumbai in 2012, bringing Jewish young adults to volunteer in Mumbai bringing literacy, nutrition, health and hygiene to the children living in the slums.