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Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Shirah Kraus's picture

A friend and I were walking to a woman's house to take out her dog. We got to talking about homelessness and human suffering and if there is even such a thing. "It is wrong to pity people, because it means that you don't accept them," she argued. I agree that pity might be the wrong thing, but I don't think acceptance is okay, either. I realized that I had been raised to believe that there is human suffering in the world and that I have a responsibility to do something about it. I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's inspiring words: "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." I respect and admire Rabbi Heschel for his intellectualism, spirituality, and deep sense of responsibility toward fighting injustice--which he did alongside MLK, Jr. in the Civil Rights era and in his opposition to the Vietnam War. The words of the Jewish prophets inspired Heschel's world-view and actions--and mine as well. I was thinking about the prophet, Isaiah, during my fast yesterday for Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur it is common to recall and read Isaiah's words:

Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:5-7)

When I fast, I do not fast to afflict myself for its own sake. I fast to repent, to center myself, to think of those who are oppressed, fettered by wickedness, hungry, and propel myself to action. I remember the many Yom Kippur food drives: "donate food for those whose fasts are neither voluntary nor temporary," the Temple president would say. Reading I, Rigoberta Menchu, I am disgusted by the degree of human suffering and exploitation in Rigoberta's life: the death of her brothers, the slave-like conditions of the fincas, and the being taught that nothing can change. When I see suffering in the world, I ask, "what can I do about it?" I'm learning that the first step is just to listen. My friend challenged my ideas about human suffering and social change and at first, I wasn't sure if I believed her. After some thoughtful reflection, I know that I do believe in social change, systemic change. I cannot accept the world as it is, but must work to make it as I think it should be (Rules for Radicals). As the ancient Rabbis said, "Justic, Justice shall you pursue" (Pirkei Avot).