The Two-Way Street: Elul D’var Torah for J Street

Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D.
on August 13, 2018

Elul is a month of introspection. For clergy in particular, much of the personal work of the penitential season gets done during Elul, as most clergy are so busy during the Yamim Nora’im that there is little time for reflection on those days. When Elul starts, I reflect back over the year. Usually I find that my more difficult reflections dwell not so much on what I did, but on what I did not do. What I did not find the time or courage to say. The thank you I did not offer. The support for which I did not have the energy. Sins of omission are often not glaring averot but small things that pile up over time. And silence in particular is something we tend not to dwell on. Yet for communal leaders, setting an example of silence can be a serious problem.

We often quote “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh — all Jews are responsible for each other” to convey our responsibility for each other’s physical welfare. But Jewish tradition often emphasizes that we are also responsible for each other’s moral welfare, and that silence is consent. As the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 54b) puts it, “Whoever can protest against their household but does not is held responsible for the sins of their household; if someone can protest against the people of their town but does not, that person is held responsible for their sins; if one can protest against the sins of the whole world but does not, one is held responsible for the sins of the whole world.”

We all have a stake in the future of Israel and of America, not only for the sake of their citizens, but also because of these countries’ impact around the world, including on the way young American Jews perceive what it means to be Jewish. At a time when the United States government practices family separation of asylum seekers, reduces taxes on the very wealthy at the expense of the poor and undermines access to health care, we all have an obligation to speak up. At a time when settlement-building in the West Bank, unequal distribution of government services within Israel and changes in Israel’s Basic Laws are moving us rapidly away from the ideals expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, we all have a moral obligation to speak up. To speak up against what this is doing to Israel’s Arab citizens. To speak up against the improper treatment of refugees. To speak up against measures that make a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict more difficult. But most of all to speak up to preserve the values we believe in and to call our brothers and sisters here and in Israel to account for moral failings that damage the image of God in the world. Silence is consent.

As we think about this season of t’shuva, it is important not only to set an example of speaking out, but to invite those around us to find their own moral voices. Together we can cry out. Together we can act. Together we can make a difference.

Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D., directs the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and is a widely known author and organizational consultant. He is the Co-Chair of the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet.

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