Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:
The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Pinchas, begins in true soap opera style. The Israelite men have just slept with women from neighboring tribes. Outraged by the scandal of it all, Pinchas kills an Israelite prince and a Midianite princess with a spear. Then God rewards Pinchas for his deed with a brit shalom, a covenant of peace and a warning that the Israelites need to tone it down with all the sleeping around and wage war with the Midianites instead. Seriously.
The takeaway: When it comes to biblical drama, this story packs a punch. But there is more to the story than first meets the eye. According to this week’s dvar tzedek author, Adina Roth, “The text offers us clues as to why…this particular encounter requires a harsh display.” According to a closer reading of the text, “the Midianites are seducing the Israelites not for connection but for ownership, not for relationship but for ideological conquest—to undermine the Israelites’ core value: Monotheism.” In other words, by falling for the Midianite’s charm and seemingly good intentions, the Israelites stand to lose everything they believe in. “Perhaps this is why,” Roth writes, “God describes the Midianites’ actions as a “crafty attack” and insists that this is a time for asserting boundaries.”
Believe it or not, this story has a modern day social justice lesson to teach. As Roth writes, “There are relationships motivated by chessed [loving kindness] and others motivated by self-interest, and it is important to recognize the difference and set boundaries against the latter.” This is particularly true when evaluating political relationships. Roth points to the United States food aid policy in Haiti as an example. “Sharing food with hungry people appears to be the consummate expression of chessed; however, many of the regulations that dictate U.S. food aid are primarily motivated by self-interest. Rules that restrict food aid to grain grown in the United States and shipped on American boats boost the American shipping and commercial agriculture sectors, but distributing food this way costs more and takes far longer than if the same funds were spent to purchase food locally in the developing world.”
The “to-do”: Support farmers and small business owners in developing nations and help them attain self-sufficiency and strong economies. Make a micro-loan through Kiva and check out the Haiti Advocacy Platform for an Alternative Development (PAPDA) – an AJWS grantee – that advocates for building sustainable and independent food systems in Haiti.
Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.