It was only mid-morning, but already plenty warm in the fields. Papaya plants stood tall in long rows, and the sun cast heavy shadows through their broad leaves. We gathered for a lesson before getting to work digging irrigation ditches, and the agronomist explained how the peasant farmer who owned the field had recently begun to benefit from crop rotation and a cooperatively owned truck. He now earned $1 per papaya, instead of the 10 cents he used to get when someone else took his fruit to market in San Salvador. His “house” was really a shack, made of corrugated metal and without a proper door, but now it had a concrete floor and an electric light that hung bare from the roof. His children were dirty, but at least they had shoes and schoolbooks—unthinkable until recently.
“Are we supposed to dig all the way?” someone asked. “Well,” replied the agronomist in Spanish, “the day is already late, and there is much work to do. Let us begin.”
A few years ago, I spent ten days in El Salvador, helping out in the fields of poor farmers with two dozen other future rabbis. We dug ditches, cleared brush, and turned soil under a hot sun; in the evenings we studied the Jewish obligation to social justice, our callused hands holding copies of ancient texts. But nothing was as compelling for me as that moment, when a Salvadoran farmer unknowingly quoted Pirkei Avot: “The task is great, the hour is late, the master is angry. Let us begin.” (R. Tarfun) Those words have swum in my mind every day since.
Social Justice is at the heart of the Jewish mission. The Torah calls to us across the years: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” and tells us how: by taking up the cause of the most vulnerable in society, by aiding those in need, and by ensuring dignity. God has created each of us equal; it is up to us to ensure that the vagaries of man-made systems never squash some of us into wretchedness. The cry of the miserable rings loud in Jewish ears. Over and over again, Torah and Rabbinic Literature ask us to organize our lives so as to mitigate suffering. Our tradition is clear: to be fully Jewish is to work actively to improve the world.
Social Action has long been part of the fabric of Beth Shalom. We have collected heaps of non-perishable food and household goods for the Women’s Shelter and the Auckland City Mission. Our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students have recently begun Mitzvah Projects as part of their studies, sending supplies to impoverished schools in Samoa and needed food to the animals housed at the RSCA. Funds raised at the Besser and Bravura Concert were contributed to the Wymondley School in South Auckland. Gan Shalom, our vege garden, supplies bags of fresh produce to the recipients of the Auckland City Mission each week, and teaches our children about social responsibility. Each of these is very good.
I believe the time has come for us to do more. The need—not only abroad but also here in Auckland—is indeed great. In these days of global economic crisis, the need is growing. Although we are a small community, we have the capacity to effect positive social change. We have an opportunity to let the world know that Jews are a compassionate people, engaged in the world around us.
A Social Justice task-force is now forming under the leadership of David Kranz, and we invite your participation. We welcome ideas, energy and relationships. Contact Christine in the office to let her know if you’d like to join the committee, or if you’d be willing to help with projects or programmes. We need your help.
Although the task is indeed great, we do not have the luxury of declining the challenge. We can make our small effort at improving the world around us together, and in so doing reinvigorate our own Jewishness. Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “it is not upon you to complete the task, but you neither are you free to desist from it.” Come—let us begin.