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.

Social Justice As a Value

This is my inaugural post in a new blog, “A Cultural Mix,” in which I will write about my observations of a mixed cultural heritage. In my case, it’s being a Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong and a convert to Orthodox Judaism.

While visiting New York recently, I attended services at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. It was a poignant Shabbat for Rabbi Avi Weiss who designated it the Soviet Jewry Shabbat, after Moses’s plead to Pharaoh to free the Hebrews as described in the Bible portion and in light of all the lobbying and rallying that he (the Rabbi) has done on behalf of Soviet Jewry over the decades.

May I be forgiven if I report his sermon inaccurately: He spoke about the Biblical phrases used to describe Moses when he went out from the palace and witnessed an Egyptian assaulting a Hebrew slave: “And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand” [Shemot 2:12] First, he quoted Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin who gave the “United Nations” response, that Moses sought a way to bring the Egyptian to justice for his criminal and inexcusable conduct. “He saw there was no one” to whom he could appeal for justice, since they were all enemies of Israel.

Next, he quoted from Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg that Moses thought that one of his Hebrew brethren who were standing around would rise up against the Egyptian and would save his brother who was being smitten. “But he saw that there was no man”: Moses saw that there was no man amongst them, and no one was paying attention to the distress of his brethren to try to save him.

Finally, he offered an Hasidic interpretation, the most fascinating and unusual one: the phrase, “he saw that there was no man” is reflexive in grammar construction, so that Moses’s dilemma was who was he? The palace-educated Egyptian or a son of the Hebrews, nursed on his own mother’s milk? The crisis forced him to choose and he chose to ally with the enslaved Hebrews. The rest is Biblical history. Thus, in every crisis there is an opportunity to make a moral and identity choice.

It was an inspiring sermon from a politically activist rabbi and one very in keeping with the Jewish faith that I have adopted. The Confucian values were of loyalty to one’s emperor, one’s clan, one’s family. There was no Social Security and no value placed on social justice. The America that I know and love has instituted a system for re-dressing the ills that fate and God has dealt to the less fortunate people in our community and elsewhere in our nation. May the upcoming Presidential elections serve to carry our values into the next four years.