How do we go about changing our world? And how long should we expect it to take?
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, gives us powerful commandments about how we are to live in society. We are commanded to be moral, to protect the rights of the impoverished, the widow and the stranger. We are to be honest in business, careful of the needs of the hungry and the homeless. We are to create a society of ethical practice and moral concern. We are to understand that a nation is judged by how it treats its weakest, neediest members. We are told repeatedly that God knows and expects us to live to this covenant, to uphold it, to cherish it, to make it our own. And we are told of the blessings that will be ours if we can do this, and the curses we will bring on ourselves if we cannot do so.
This covenant was large and challenging. It put real responsibilities on its members, its b’nai berit, to do things that weren’t easy or obvious, even if they were right. No doubt our ancient Israelite ancestors sometimes struggled when told to “open your hands” to the poor and the needy, to “welcome the stranger,” to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Probably they didn’t always manage to give their full tithes, to make the pilgrimage to the Temple to declare their gratitude for what they had. I’ll bet there were times when they didn’t provide adequately for the widow and the orphan.
But that challenge, the daily requirement to try to live to this standard, nonetheless made them better people, and made Jewish society egalitarian and, generally, ethical. And when they failed, they learned that what God wanted was Teshuvah, return to the right course. Positive societal change was not instantaneous, but evolutionary. But it did happen for our ancestors, and was codified as a practical framework by the rabbis in the Talmud.
These standards should have at least as much meaning for us today. After two and half years of verbal attacks, public policy changes and Federal government persecution directed at some of the weakest members of our society—immigrants, people seeking asylum, young children—we have a responsibility, as American Jews and as decent human beings to work to change this directly and publicly. When something isn’t right—such as putting children in cages and denying them beds and bathrooms—we need to speak up and seek change.
It is what the Torah teaches us in Ki Tavo, and it is what God requires of us.