In contemporary Jewish discourse, the worlds of the synagogue and the worlds of service and advocacy sit far apart. The former is a place of introspection, of prayer and of relationship with God. The latter is a place of action and engagement in the world.
Many of us distinguish between “religious” Jews and “secular” Jews. Religious Jews attend synagogue, observe Shabbat and keep kosher. For secular Jews, their primary involvement comes through culture and justice.
But these boundaries between prayer and justice, and between the internal and the external, are foreign to Judaism. Halachah, most often translated as “Jewish law,” literally means “the way to walk.” To be a Jew is to walk through the world in a Jewish way. This Jewish way includes contemplation and action, prayer and service, relationships with the Divine and relationships with other human beings.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jews spend more hours in the synagogue than at any other time during the year. For this reason, these holidays can feel purely contemplative. Yet Rosh Hashanah is also “yom teruah,” “the day of sounding the shofar,” when we hear the sound that the Torah associates with liberation. And Yom Kippur morning is punctuated with Isaiah’s call to “loose the chains of injustice … to set the oppressed free.”
These intrusions of real-life politics into the contemplative business of prayer remind us that prayer and justice work were never meant to be separate realms of behavior. Rather, the two constitute complementary aspects of an integrated Jewish life. In this integrated life, prayer and ritual push us toward justice work and sustain us in these efforts.
We often think of prayer as a one-way conversation with God. We praise God for everything that is good in the world and beg for supernatural forces to change what is not. Instead, we might understand prayer as a two-way exchange that includes a challenge to us as well as an appeal to God.
For example, Jews each morning traditionally recite a series of blessings about everyday miracles. We give thanks for our vision, our freedom, our clothing and our other basic needs. For those who have what they need to survive, these blessings remind us to be grateful for what we have, even when every one of our desires might not be fulfilled. For those who are struggling to get by, these blessings offer hope that our situations will improve.
For all of us, these blessings challenge us to create a world in which every person is free, and in which every person can meet the basic needs of his or her family. We cannot simply thank God for opening the eyes of the blind without considering how we can make the world more accessible to people with physical limitations. And we cannot thank God for giving us freedom without working to secure the freedom of the estimated 12 million people in the world who remain enslaved. Rather than allow us to retreat internally, prayer forces us out into the world.
At the same time, prayer provides a necessary check on the tendency of social justice activists to try to fix the world right now, no matter the cost to them or to others. Prayer, Shabbat and other rituals provide spiritual nourishment, the feeling that our work is connected to a broader whole, and even a sense of humility.
Social justice work famously burns out many of the idealistic young people who sign up after college to be organizers or campaign workers. As for the longtime social justice activists, some begin to feel like the work is the only thing that matters. In many cases, this leads to long work hours and a never-ending sense of urgency. In the worst cases, some come to believe that the relentless pursuit of the cause justifies bad behavior toward others or the tolerance of abusive work environments.
Stopping to pray, to mark time or even to take off 25 hours for Shabbat is a means of acknowledging that even if we work every minute of every day, we’re not going to fix everything. This realization forces us to see ourselves as participants in a long-term struggle rather than as heroes able to repair the world on our own.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may be days to sit in prayer and contemplation. But this ritual does not constitute a break from justice work. Rather, these days should both nourish our justice work and challenge us to recommit to these efforts in the year ahead.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Community” (Jewish Lights, 2011).
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