Dear Ohav Family:
Shanah tovah. May we all be inscribed in the book of life, health, and happiness in the coming year of 5781.
The passionate, stirring words of Second Isaiah that we find in our haftarah for Yom Kippur morning strike a discordant note when we consider their historical context. The prophet who wrote them lived during a time of unprecedented economic prowess and political power under the Persian empire. One would think that, with so much imperial wealth and power, poverty and disenfranchisement would not be what the prophet claimed they were, when he addressed his fellow Jews. However, look at what Isaiah’s criticisms of his local community in the land of Israel were. Conveying God’s anger to the people, he said:
“Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
Your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
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?
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.
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.
Excoriating the people for their moral and religious hypocrisy, the prophet reminded them that what God really demanded from them was not mere ritual fasting but fasting accompanied by compassionate behavior towards the poor and disenfranchised, active commitment to justice for all members of society, and simple human decency.
Implicit in the prophet’s call to the people was the realization that, as the Torah had already warned them, “the poor shall not cease out of the land.” Persia and its provinces were awash in wealth, yet poverty, oppression, and injustice continued unabated. It would not surprise me if the reasons for this were the same reasons for such disparities in our own time and culture: obscene concentrations of wealth in the hands of the wealthy, rigid ethnic and class castes separating haves from have nots, and the all too common tendency of elites to rationalize their inherent right to their elite status.
The prophet’s call mattered so much in our ancestors’ time. I think it matters even more in our time.
Our disastrous federal leadership, COVID and the brutal murder of George Floyd have once again exposed the raw, bleeding wounds of racial and class inequality in America. In the coming months and years, will we Americans genuinely engage in a serious, sustained reckoning with these entrenched, systemic injustices that are poisoning us? The prophet is calling to us across the millennia, warning us to wake up and serve God in dismantling these inequalities, starting with the poorest people in our own neighborhoods.
There are many ways in which we need to transform our society socially and politically. Yet while such systemic changes are badly needed, Isaiah reminds us that, in the real world of now, individuals are still starving and hurting. When they are traumatized, God in Whose image we are all made, is traumatized. While we are waiting for the revolution to happen, we still need to help them.
For these seven weeks of our high holiday journey to joy, I offer you below ten of my favorite organizations striving to unlock the fetters of wickedness and to let the oppressed go free, individual by individual, family by family, here at home, throughout the nation, and in our beloved state of Israel. I encourage you, week by week, to learn about their work and to commit to supporting their work, however you can. They are a sampling of great organizations seeking to fulfill his commanding words. If you are supporting others, yishar kochachem, more power to you!
I especially want to highlight the incredible work of the Regional Foodbank, JFS and Interfaith Partnership For The Homeless, with whom our Ohav family has long-standing local relationships. Please consider helping us to help these vital organizations this coming year. As more and more people remain out of work, sick, and unable to buy enough food, Foodbank, JFS and Partnership are struggling to help the most poor and vulnerable in our community. You will be hearing more about them throughout the year.
Once again, shanah tovah! May we have the strength to work together with God and each other to bring life, healing, and joy to our fellow Jews and Americans.
Rabbi Dan Ornstein
https://ajws.org/ (American Jewish World Service does international development work globally for the planet’s poorest.)
https://www.hias.org/ (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is deeply involved in advocacy for refugees and immigrants.)
https://hazon.org/ (HAZON– Jewish activism for environmental justice and sustainability.)
https://www.leket.org/en/ (LEKET–provides food for Israel’s poorest.)
https://jewishfederations.org/federation-impact-stories/fed-impact-food-insecurity-during-covid-19 (Jewish federations’ support for those affected by COVID.)
https://globaljews.org/ (B’chol Lashon advocates for the growing number of Jews of color within our national and global Jewish communities.)
https://mazon.org/ (Mazon: A Jewish Response To Hunger, raises funds to support a vast network of food justice organizations.)