“Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed,” (Bereshit 32:29). Yaakov Avinu is blessed with a new name only once he has struggled both with G-d and humanity together. The Jewish people are named Israel only after existential encounters with divinity and humanity!
There is a religious crisis in our age! Many seek closeness to G-d but not to assist man in a rigorous fashion. Others seek to help people but abandon the Ribbono Shel Olam. Jewish social justice makes the radical claim that one only comes closer to G-d by seeking justice for G-d’s creatures. Heschel said it quite simply: “Seen from the perspective of prophetic faith, the predicament of justice is the predicament of God,” (Religion and Race, 93).
Rav Yisrael Salanter argues that another’s physical needs are our own spiritual needs. For us to stand with integrity before the Abishter, we must be helping those who are sick, mourning, in poverty, or oppressed. Rav Shlomo Carlebach poetically inspired:
What is it really to have a covenant with God? A lot of people have a covenant with God and they are God drunk. They are completely with God, but they are not world drunk. They don’t see the people anymore, especially if the people are pagans, according to their theory. A person who has a true covenant with God has to be completely aware of every little pagan in the world. If Abraham would not have welcomed the three angels who were disguised as pagans, he would never have had Isaac and there would never be a Messiah, and whole world most probably would be destroyed one way or another! (Holy Brother, 19).
One cannot achieve religious virtue without developing sustainable and developing midot of chesed and tzedek. In Derech Hashem, Rav Luzzatto explains that the soul has 5 parts: “nefesh (soul), ruach (spirit), neshama (breath), chayah (living essence) and yechidah (unique essence),” To ensure the vitality of each part of the soul, one must seek out different ways of giving. Which type of tzedek and chesed work do you propose gives life to each spiritual compartment of the self? How can we do our social justice work and our activism in a way to ensure that we are coming closer to G-d and closer to becoming G-dly?
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"