I gave a talk at a local synagogue on textual activism; ways of using our Torah to support civic engagement. Afterward, I received a critique. I can sermonize all I want, but wasn’t it more important to be acting instead – even on Shabbat? So I have had to consider the role of prayer and study in relation to mobilizing for change. Having found inspiration in Torah, I understand the need for both, understanding Torah to operate like a navigation system to keep me on the right path.
In Parshat Eikev Moses redresses the people for being stiff-necked, for their fecklessness, and for their infidelity to God. The prescription for a better future is to love God, obey the rules, exhibit gratitude and open your hearts. “Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, . . .” This admonition contains elements of both internal processes and demonstrable actions.
The impulse to act can be rooted in a religious commitment that reaches out from heart and soul. Accordingly, my desire to change the world begins with a change in me. The Jewish guidance system I attempt to follow is living a life that emulates God. The first steps along the path are for me to work on my heart-centered God connection through reverence and love. Only then will my demonstrable service likely have the proper focus and intention and energy. The journey to freedom, human rights, and economic opportunity, begin as an internal passage.
The moral compass by which we operate cannot set true north by personal calibration. Rather, our direction must align with values suitable to all our pursuits for a better world.
Back to synagogue. Two weeks after I spoke, I returned to hear Rabbi Michael Pollack speak to the congregation. He employed the priestly blessing image of God’s face turning toward us. In the light of God’s countenance, we also turn and direct our faces to God. This for me is the crux of textual activism. There is a mutuality of operation when we receive this world as God’s looking toward us and we endeavor to care for the world with that appreciation. In this way, we remember to love others as we are loved by God. And we act in service of God employing the unselfish passion of heart and soul.
Ultimately, the strength and resilience needed to bring about appropriate change in a time of contentiousness will best come when we begin with an internal process. The fuel for the journey might be our love for God and all that God has created. The best navigation system is our Jewish values. Reminders of the love and values are found in the Torah we absorb each week. In this way, we must begin with our Jewish texts to send us on the right path to improving this world. Both teaching Torah and advocating for change go hand in hand.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame