Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
This week, we close out 2012 and celebrate the start of the New Year. It is worth pausing to reflect upon this past year before we enter 2013.
Across the globe, we witnessed events both positive and negative, tragic and inspiring. Occurrences included the continuing effects of the "Arab Spring" in the Middle East, such as in Egypt, which ratified a more Islamic Constitution, and where elections brought Mohamed Morsi to power; police opening fire on striking mine workers in South Africa; the Sept. 11th attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya; Felix Baumgartner's space jump; an increasingly isolated and nuclear-ambitious Iran; a military flare-up between Israelis and Hamas forces in Gaza; the massacres in Syria’s civil war ;and the continuing effects of the Great Recession on the United States, Europe, and around the world.
Moving closer to home, we have seen the unprecedented damage across the Northeast resulting from Superstorm Sandy; a contentious and hard-fought campaign which resulted in the re-election of President Obama; and most recently, the horrific tragedy in Newtown, CT, the 16th mass killing in America this year, leaving a total of at least 88 dead and more than 100 wounded. To add to our apprehension, Congress has yet to come to an agreement on a deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff”; failure to do so before the end of 2012 means massive tax hikes and government budget cuts will kick in as soon as 2013 starts. This could have major ramifications for many Americans; for example, without a deal, unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans next week, and some economists believe going “over” the cliff could trigger another recession.
In our Torah portion this week (Vayechi), we are also at a major transition point, from ending Bereishit (Genesis) and starting Shemot (Exodus). Yaakov gives his final words on his deathbed and his final blessings to his children and grandchildren. The Jewish people (Bnai Yaakov, Bnai Yisrael) must now move forward in a post-Patriarch era. Yaakov looks back at his origins, sees how far he has come in his life, and then looks forward in giving blessings for the future of his children and his people.
We can emulate the path of Yaakov, being more reflective about where we came from, and giving blessings for a more positive future. Even more, we can emulate Yosef. When there is a change in leadership, many fear that change and they long for things to stay the same. After Yaakov passes, the brothers of Yosef become very afraid for their future, fearing that, with their father gone, Yosef will take revenge upon them for selling him into slavery so many years before. But, far from anger, Yosef tells his brothers that, though they meant him harm, G-d planned all along to turn that deed into good; Yosef ended up going down to Egypt and conceived of storing grain to save the people from starvation during the years of famine. And as he cared for the Egyptian people, so too he will care for his brothers and their families: “Yosef spoke to them… ‘And now, do not fear—I will sustain you and your children.’ He comforted them and spoke to their heart” (Genesis 50:19, 21). In a time of great transition, he calmed and assured them.
In our times, as we enter 2013, full of both light and darkness, hope and fear, we need communities of hope that can reassure us that our good work for change and our constant acts of giving are not in vain, and that good will ultimately prevail over evil in the world at large.
Many in recent times have predicted that religion would eventually fade away. A 2011 survey conducted in Great Britain showed that a quarter of the population claimed to have no religion, almost double the figure of 10 years ago. And, while the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent identify themselves as being without religious affiliation this is double the percentage from a generation ago.
However, these numbers fall quite short of telling the whole story of the place in religion in our societies.
Amidst the competing ideologies and schools of thought from the last few thousand years, few have endured. But religion has prevailed as perhaps the strongest survivor at all. Great nations may last centuries; but the great religions have survived for millennia. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, in his recent op-ed in the New York Times, wrote that religion “reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions.”
The Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam, famous for his 2000 book Bowling Alone, which detailed an increasing trend toward isolation in America, argued in his new book, American Grace, that there is one place where social capital can still be found: religious communities. Professor Putnam, himself a convert to Judaism, found that frequent church or synagogue attendees are more likely to donate to charities; help the homeless; do volunteer work; donate blood; spend time with someone who is feeling depressed; help a neighbor; help someone find a job; or offer a seat to a stranger. He found that religiosity, measured by the frequency of attendance at the house of worship, is a better predictor of altruism than all other variables (e.g., income, age, gender, race, education).
Yes, there were catastrophes in 2012, and grim reality threatens. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that religious groups in particular are addressing major problems. In November, Jewish and Catholic charities joined forces to help feed the victims of Hurricane Sandy, as well as provide Thanksgiving food baskets for the poor. In December, religious leaders representing Christians, Jews, and Muslims joined together to argue for a ban on assault weapons, as well as high-capacity clips, restricting gun show sales, and improving treatment for the mentally ill. Among other issues, more than 300 religious groups are working to end torture by U.S. intelligence agencies as a method of obtaining information In short, religious groups are in the forefront of nearly every major social justice campaign in America.
2012 has been a tough year on many levels. But as people become more and more divided due to technology communication, longer work hours, and the breakdown of community, we must maintain hope and confidence, and we must hold our communities close. Religious community is not the only source of hope we can find, but it may very well be the strongest option of all.
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!"