February 9, 2013
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
A week ago Friday, I woke up to the radio announcing the sad news of the passing of Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York City. He was a colorful personality who was blessed with a sharp mind and a quick wit. He was, as he himself said, a fiercely proud Jew and fiercely proud of New York. On Monday night, I couldn’t help but watch on the Internet a replay of the entire funeral service that day at Temple Emanuel in New York. I was moved by all of the tributes to this larger-than-life person who was at the same time so human. He was praised by his nephews and niece, Mayor Bloomberg, Bill Clinton, Ido Aharony, Israel’s Consul General in New York, and former aides and associates. In Bill Clinton’s eulogy, he said that Koch as a public servant could imagine what life was like for the people affected by public policy. He understood impact that government has on people. Clinton went on to say that Koch had a big brain but had a bigger heart. He was tough on crime yet at the same time wanted to make sure that kids who got in trouble got a second chance. Clinton referred to Koch’s signature phrase: “How am I doin’?” Clinton turned it around and asked the question about the society Koch left behind. Clinton said, “We’re all doing fine, but we miss you. We miss you so much because we all know that we’re doing a lot better because you lived and served.”
As our nation remembers a great public servant, and a great Jewish American at that, it is fitting that in synagogues around the world this week we read Parashat Mishpatim. The lofty ideals blazoned in the tablets of the Ten Commandments that we read last week are now broken down to bite-size chunks. Parashat Mishpatim is a blue print for creating a civil society rooted in the rule of law. Moreover, this is not just any law code. This parashah bears another name of Seifer HaBrit, the Book of the Covenant. The Covenant, of course, is between the Israelites and God. The Torah sends a message in this portion that obeying the laws does not only create a harmonious society, but a just and holy one as well. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “The dignity of a human being is as much a permanent part of God’s creation as the law of gravity” (Etz Hayim, p. 456).
For the Rabbis in the Talmud, one could surmise that a basic question that we Jews should ask of ourselves is “How are we doing—as a people?” For them, the path to the answer rests on our concern for the most vulnerable members of society. The rabbis note that the Torah cautions us no fewer than 36 times about proper behavior toward a stranger (BT BM 59b). The first of these admonitions is in Parashat Mishpatim: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” The consequences for not helping society’s vulnerable are harsh indeed. The Israelites are commanded not only to do certain actions, but also to feel empathy for society’s weakest. They were asked to recall what it felt liked to be aliens in a foreign land and to imagine what it would feel like to be a widow or an orphan. We are to treat aliens, widows, orphans, and other marginal members of society as we would want to be treated in similar circumstances. To return to the words of Rabbi Kushner: “The decency of a society is measured by how it cares for its least powerful members” (Etz Hayim, 468).
The measures of effective societies can be adapted to measure the effectiveness of smaller communities, such as synagogues. The decency of a synagogue (such as ours) is measured by how we care for our most vulnerable members, people who are dealing with physical or emotional stress of one form or another.
This week, a revitalized Temple Torah Tov team met and discussed how we can be more effective in reaching out to our members who are distressed in one way or another, such as illness to themselves or loved ones. Our co-chairs, Jo Ann Gorodetzer and Lenny Weinstein have enthusiastically embraced an agenda to streamline communication and make sure that our members are adequately cared for. In order for Tov Team to be successful, there are two things everyone here can do to help. First, you can volunteer to be on the Tov Team that will include calling and visiting congregants who need to be contacted. Tov Team is not a group of social workers and cannot provide home health care. Its job is to assist me and Cantor Mondrow to be a spiritual presence for our congregants and remind people that they are never alone. The next meeting of Tov Team will be on Wednesday, March 6 at 7:00 PM, and will include training from a social worker from Jewish Family and Children’s Services on best practices in community outreach and support. Please let Jo Ann or Lenny know if you are interested in participating in Tov Team.
The second thing is something where I ask for everyone’s help. I am going to try to make it a regular practice to remind the congregation to look around the area where you sit. If you do not see someone who usually sits in your area and you don’t know his or her whereabouts, please tell me or a member of the committee. Do not assume that we know that person’s status. Let us know so that we know to reach out. If you know of someone who is sick, please don’t assume that I or others know. Please call me or email me to let me know. If someone here, God forbid, experiences some physical or emotional distress, perhaps even requiring hospitalization, but he or she doesn’t want to “bother the rabbi” because he’s too busy, think again. Please let me know or tell someone who will tell me. I want to be able to support our members in times of need and need to know who might be in need of support.
Ed Koch was famous for asking “How am I doin’?” Let’s apply that same confident self-reflection to ourselves. Let’s use Parashat Mishpatim as an annual opportunity to renew our commitment to the covenantal values that it teachers. The decency of our congregation will ultimately be measured in how we care for our members who are vulnerable. May God give us the strength to measure up to the task.