President Obama, at his inauguration, articulated a critical message for our times when he called for a new era of personal responsibility in how we live our lives. In many ways, Obama’s presidency is deeply symbolic of a great spiritual shift in our society. We’re moving from expectations of easier times and self-fulfillment to expectations of challenge, and joining together to fix a broken world. It’s an era of learning from past mistakes, of affirming integrity and working together for a common good.
There is a great hope right now that the Obama era will be an era of service, of participation in national programs that engage people in all walks of life to give of themselves. It’s very possible that we’re on the brink of a galvanized society and culture, with large segments of our society helping the underprivileged and transforming the face of local communities. We can potentially emerge from economic crisis with deeper connections with our neighbors in true bonds of community.
But we if we’re going to succeed in establishing this new kind of humane era, we have to get it right. We will have to come to grips with the fact that the economy isn’t the only thing that needs to transform—it’s the very souls of this generation of America. We have to remember that our times have been shaped by narcissism. A whole generation of young people has grown up in our society with the belief of entitlement, and personal success as an expectation. A whole generation is questioning its premises about life. A whole generation is realizing that a life lived for material gain only, a life that places ‘self esteem’ over self-respect is coming up void. So many young Americans are liable to be thrown into spiritual crisis because deeply held ideas of material happiness might not come to fruition. But in every experience of crisis and loss, there is an opportunity for growth. This new Obama era can best be served in the Jewish community when we, in responding to the sense of loss and fear in an economic downturn, turn to our tradition for guidance and new directions.
Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14). With these concise rhetorical questions, Hillel powerfully brings together notions of self-preservation with altruism in a way perfectly suited for our times. Indeed, Hillel’s teaching can give us all assurances that we were not evil in relishing our success and material optimism in the years leading up to this crisis. It is human nature for us to want the best for ourselves and our loved ones. Our only confusion was that, as a society, we fell out of balance. Leaner times can remind us that a life well-lived is one where we go beyond self-interest and remember the Other, the less privileged. I am for myself most fully when I am not only for myself, but living ultimately for the benefit of the Other. The challenge of our time (if not now, when?) is to teach a whole generation of Americans that the wisest path in life is this ‘middle way’ between self-interest and pure altruism.
It can be said that the whole of human history has been the struggle to learn this message. Perhaps now is a uniquely timed moment in our history where its wisdom can be truly understood. After all, a generation bred on self-interest, whose eyes have been opened to compassion has the potential to serve more deeply and passionately than past generations that have not been so privileged. Many rabbinic teachings on “Ba’alei T’Shuvah,” (those who Return to Torah) affirm this idea: to have known and then moved on from errant ways makes one a greater Tzadik (righteous person) because such a person has greater self-understanding and compassion.
In the organized Jewish community, we have to be front and center in this new era of Service. We have to make it very clear to this generation that all along, for countless centuries, we have been there as a mainstay of the greatest kind of service activities. We must remind people that the heart and soul of Judaism is not just about religious ‘services,’ but about lived service as well—acting in social justice, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for each other during times of need. We need to get the word out that synagogues and Jewish communities are the perfect place to find the sacred dimension in a life of service. We must remind a new generation that a society’s success is measured ultimately not by material success or cultural prowess, but by how it serves the ger, yatom, v’almanah, the stranger, the orphan, the widow—the defenseless in society.
Adas Israel can be very proud of its wonderful opportunities to rise to this era of service. For years, we have provided outstanding opportunities for social action, caring for the bereaved and the suffering, acting for social justice, and educating ourselves and others about critical issues that make the world a better place. We have consistently worked with and supported outstanding organizations like the Ezra’s Pantry, SOME (So Others Might Eat), Avodah (The Jewish Service Corps), and many other organizations. Now, more than ever, is a time to put our service opportunities front and center in our congregational life to meet the challenges of this new era.
The prophets and rabbis of old taught us long ago that the world we long for will not come about easily and painlessly. They taught us that the messianic ideal of a world-to-come, a world justice and peace and compassion will only come after hevlei haMashiach, the birth-pangs of the Messiah. I don’t know if the Messiah is coming yet, but as Jews, we must regard all times of societal crisis as hevlei haMashiach, as Messianic birth-pangs. A successful birth of the world that we want requires that we help each other make meaning of our pain, that we transform our experience and hardships into opportunities to be the human beings we long to be. May we indeed emerge from this crisis having birthed a society that truly embraces service and responsibility. And may we merit seeing the world we long for in our lifetimes.