Peoplehood is With People

by Rachel Farbiarz and Ruth W. Messinger

In parsing our Peoplehood along the axes of particularism and universalism, our thoughts inevitably turn to actual, real people: to our grandparents and great-grandparents and those unknown before them. Our people were not from around here and did not live as we are privileged to live. They made their way walking, carrying, sailing, stowing, clawing and running. They came hopeful and gutted; brave, determined and scared from Russia, Romania, Turkey, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Germany, Uzbekistan and Poland. In places often of poverty, hunger and slum; rail, jail and camp they paused to catch their breath.

It is these people whom we encounter as we step through the abstract maze of our Peoplehood and look more deeply. Their thick voices ring in our ears: “And you? In this place to which we struggled to bring you – with its food and its wealth, its power and its peace – What are you doing here?”

We are a people pursued by our history. In celebration and lament, longing and horror, we turn to our past. Indeed, we are told, we must. We command ourselves to do so with the twin Nevers of our more recent past: Never Forget. Never Again. But it is not only the Holocaust’s reverberating impact that has rendered these Nevers into contemporary Jewry’s steadfast refrain. The implied normative charge behind this refrain – wrench from your history its ethical imperative so as to give deeper meaning to your present – is as old and well-worn as we are as a nation.

Scarcely had we left Egypt when God began tutoring us in the necessity of looking backward. As we wandered the desert, God instructed us to sit in booths in the autumn, destroy our leaven in the spring, wrap tefillin daily and redeem our first sons upon their birth – all in commemoration of the Exodus. But one command among the myriad rooted in our liberation is repeated more than any other. We are to love; heed the feelings of; and protect the stranger because, God explains: “You know the soul of a stranger; You were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Beside the distinction of its relentless repetition, God’s admonition to deal kindly with the stranger operates differently than the many other mitzvot whose origins are rooted in the Exodus. Sukkah, matzah and tefillin are performed l’zekher – as eternal witnesses to – the Exodus. Proper treatment of the stranger captures instead a causative relationship between shared history and necessary action. God’s admonitions concerning the stranger are less a blueprint for specific deeds than a framework for moral reasoning and work.

Through this framework, we are to look backward and inward, and then act forward and outward. As children of the Exodus we are to interrogate our past so as to make our present and future accountable to it. And critically, our accountability is not limited by the coordinates of time, place and known, familiar persons. It is specifically those strange to us for whom we must wring out the lessons of our own experience with oppression, otherness and strangerhood.

The idea, then, that our obligations to our own people stand somehow in opposition to those that we owe people globally is specious. The two, rather, are deeply intertwined. It is precisely our sense of ourselves as a people – as Jews, with a particular relationship to a particular history – that gives rise to our outward-facing obligations. The Torah establishes this tight nexus between self and stranger, between our very existence as a people and how we translate that existence to others. We are not at liberty to sever it.

This is not to say, of course, that we are not obligated to serve those in need within our own communities. Our obligation to support our fellow Jews is as binding as is our obligation to the desperately poor around the globe. Both are mitzvot – non-negotiable imperatives whose mantle rests upon each of us.

But we do not encounter our obligations as Jews as if they were chits in a zero-sum game, dedicating our resources to only one category of mitzvot. We teach our children to at once keep the shabbat and kashrut; to respect their parents and themselves; to learn Torah and still make time to practice it.

Indeed, as our children first begin to assume responsibility for the Torah’s obligations, we instruct – and comfort – them with the sage Ben Azzai’s words: “A mitzvah induces another mitzvah.” His words provide rabbinic anchor to something we know from experience. When individuals commit themselves to justice, tzedakah and compassionate action globally; and when they are given the framework for understanding these endeavors as part of their essential obligation as Jews, something else happens as well. The satisfaction of mitzvah is contagious. And thus do compassionate global works expand the soul, deepen one’s sense of responsibility and bring into sharper focus the Divinity resident within the world. Such are the ingredients for binding people to their fellow humans and fellow Jews alike.

We see this time and again in our work with American Jewish World Service: from the committed individuals who labor and learn on our rabbinical students’ service delegations throughout the Global South; to the young and old who, in fighting the genocide in Darfur, discover a new entry point to their own faith; to those bnai mitzvah who, coming of age in an irrevocably globalized world, reject the neat division of their new burdens between Jew and “other.” And most powerfully, we see it in ourselves: how this hard, expansive work has made us more serious and devoted, more committed to and compelled by the project of our Peoplehood.

We therefore urge ourselves and others to be the boundary-crossers that our people have long been: to find a deeper sense of our own selves and our people by traversing boundaries of place, tongue, race, creed and time. It is thus that we will fulfill God’s ancient promise to Abraham that through his seed “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard and Yale. She clerked for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which her practice focused on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.

Ruth W. Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a faith-based international human rights organization that works to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world.

This article is from the series, Peoplehood – Between “Charity Begins at Home” and “Repair the World”.