A Balanced Life, Redux

By Hannah Lee 

Now that we’ve passed another Day of Judgment, we can ask ourselves what are we going to do with the life that we’ve been granted?  Do we live up to our values, our ideals?  Since my teens, I’ve been passionate about worldly causes, but the challenge has always been a delicate balance.

The PJVoice publisher alerted me to an offer by national HIAS of a new poster for Sukkot, one that acknowledges that today, 65 million refugees and displaced people still wander the earth in search of a safe place to call home.  The poster features photos and narratives of five refugees, including the four-year-old Syrian boy, Rawan.   I ‘ve been torn about adding secular issues to the Jewish holidays.  I recall that AJWS offered their version of the Four Children to the Pesach seder: the Activist Child; the Skeptical Child, the Indifferent Child; and the Uninformed Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask.   I never did use them.

Liberal Jews would say that our highest goal is tikkun olam (repair the world).   The goal of Torah-observant Jews, my Rabbi reminds me, is to become closer to God, HaShem.  So, what is a socially-conscious Jew to do? After all, we’re taught that the Prophet Isaiah blasted the Israelites for empty piety, which is the Haftorah selection for Yom Kippur morning.

I’ve encountered this kind of dilemma before: a friend who frets over using too many candles for Chanukah– her family minhag (custom) is to light a separate chanukiyah for every member of the household– or keeping lights on for Shabbat or  the Chagim (holy days).  I’ve long chafed at the masculine tone of our tefillot (prayers) and the absence of women in the Orthodox liturgy.  How to juggle our different values?

My Rabbi taught me that we don’t mix the holy with the secular, as important as social justice is.  This is because passionate people can become zealots, touting their value over all other ones.  Haven’t we met feminists who bash all men?  Animal rights activists who destroy private property to proclaim their superior stance?

With age, I’ve learned to temper my social justice/feminist/environmentalist zeal.  No longer do I tell my dinner companions that their food is of animal carcasses (as I did once in college, but it was an actual carcass on their coffee table).  I daven in an Orthodox shul, but I visit my in-laws for Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, so I can participate with women reading from and dancing with the Torah in a shul that lists itself as “open Orthodox”.  I keep lights on for Shabbat and the Chagim (the ones not on a timer), but I am comforted by carbon footprint trade-off of not driving or using electronics.  Finally, I will not use a poster for Sukkot that publicizes the plight of refugees, although I will continue to work for the re-settlement of refugees.  (Our family sukkah reflects my dual heritages, featuring Chinese lanterns.)

May the Jewish year 5777 be one of good tidings and good deeds, in a delicate balance of the sacred (timelessness) and the contemporary.