Tzedakah_word_cloudBy Michael Johnston

The quote came from an unexpected place – Ambassador James Joseph, a civil servant in service to four presidents and the former ambassador to South Africa. His father, a Protestant minister, used to say to him “the soul would have no rainbows if the eyes had no tears.”

Given the long history of racism in America and the struggles to achieve civil rights for the African American community, one can feel the profound sense of suffering at the heart of this quote.

Yet, the quote echoed with Jewish sensibility – if I didn’t know the source, I might have assumed that it was a Yiddish proverb.

The deep and overwhelming ache held within the words can also reflect the history of the Jewish people. We know oppression as well. We understand hatred, prejudice and tragedy. Tragedy so overwhelming that there aren’t enough tears.

That history of pain and oppression and tragedy can never be forgotten. And yet, here we are still. A people with a centuries long connection to a set of values we hold deeply and personally. Amongst them, the belief that there is work to be done in repairing our world, that we are tasked with doing that work and that through the lens of all those tears, we can see the possibility of rainbows.

Part of Ambassador Joseph’s message was a call for unity in the face of continued prejudice and bigotry in our nation. But in his words was the powerful (and also deeply Jewish) idea that philanthropy (tzedakah) holds the key to finding that unity.

Our country is badly divided. The language used in our political discourse is aggressive and confrontational. It is us vs. them and at every turn there is suspicion of those who are different, rage and intransigence where there was once compromise and growing evidence of institutional prejudice against people of color, immigrants and minority religions. There were other eras in human history in which rage and ethnic, religious or racial stereotyping came to the fore in otherwise equitable, rational societies. We do not want to return to these moments in history.

Much can be learned in this troubling era by the Jewish concept of philanthropy. Tzedakah is not just charity, it also means justice. Perhaps this dual meaning holds the key to the salve our nation needs. Philanthropy can be a force for uniting us again. A force to unify us in support of the hungry, the poor, the illiterate, the sick. A pathway to invest in those who have no opportunity or who are turned away because they are different. A way to achieve equity in our society and cure the most pressing ills.

Perhaps it’s philanthropy’s turn to show leadership in a divided country. It is a daunting task, but what better vehicle than gifts from the soul and what better source than those who have proven their ability to see rainbows through their tears?

Shabbat Shalom.

Michael Johnston is President & CEO of Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.

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