The Hebrew Bible instructs
us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and to pursue justice with passion and
purpose. In our world, where the clothes on our bodies come from India,
Bangladesh, and Indonesia, and where the components for our cellphones come
from Mongolia, Korea, Taiwan, Nevada and Africa, the definition of “neighbor”
is very broad. We consume from around the world; therefore, we have obligations
for the wellbeing of our neighbors from around the world. Our world is
interconnected, and, if we are going to be interdependent as consumers, we
should be obligated on a deeper level as well.
I was privileged to be one of 17 rabbis who
spent a week soaked with sweat and caked in brick dust and mortar grime as a
volunteer in the tiny village of Bikharipurwa in Uttar Pradesh in northern
India. Our time in the village was spent at a rural school laying a courtyard
so the students would have a place to play that was not turned into a swamp by
the seasonal monsoons. We repaved the floor of a classroom and kitchen and repaired
the school’s water pump.
Rabbi Max Weiss (back row, fourth from left) and 16 other rabbis in India.
The work we did in this village was far removed from
the typical work of American rabbis. But we, rabbis from across the spectrum of
American Jewish life, were united by the shared Jewish value of justice, Tzedek, and the recognition that we bear
responsibility for the wellbeing of our neighbors. We came to Bikharipurwa as a rabbinic
delegation from American Jewish World Service, a group whose mission is to "to realize human rights and end poverty in the
In a couple of weeks, we will enter our High Holy Day season and will observe
Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance — a day of fasting, prayer, contemplation and
ultimately, renewal. Traditionally, Yom Kippur is a day for turning inward, for
examining ourselves and our deeds, and for contemplating our relationships. But
on this day, the holiest of the year, we also read the words of Isaiah, “…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.” On Yom Kippur, even as we are asked to
turn inward and examine ourselves, we are commanded to look outside of
ourselves and act to bring justice and kindness to our struggling world.
On one of our final days in
Bikharipurwa, we talked with the people who lived there. We sat together in the
shade of a tree in the center of the community surrounded by the simple homes
of the villagers. We asked questions of one another and, with the help of
interpreters, pieced together a conversation. One of my colleagues asked one of
the men of the village what he liked about living there. The man spoke of their
bond to the land and how it sustained them. Then, he gestured to one of the
homes behind us and said that when one person cries, the entire community hears
and everyone comes to see what might be wrong.
It is time for us to hear the cries of
our neighbors, wherever they live, and try to find out what might be wrong and
what we can do to help.
Rabbi Max Weiss is the senior rabbi of
Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion and a member of the JUF Health and Human