Those who arrive for morning worship earliest recite a teaching from the Talmud designed to remind them of the foundational values of a good Jewish life even before the prayers begin in earnest.
“These are the things that benefit a person in life and form a sustaining fund in the world beyond,” it begins. They are: honoring parents, acting with compassion, frequenting the study hall, welcoming visitors, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, burying the dead, prayer and making peace between two people.
It’s quite a roster of activities, but it makes clear what the agenda is for a Jew in this world. It seems to me that anyone who takes our tradition seriously cannot help but commit to the values that are inherent in a righteous Jewish life. And if these activities are to be the personal aspirations of a committed Jew, then certainly they are the aspirations of the Jewish people for the society in which we live.
Here in the United States, where the Jewish community is blessed with the freedom, even the invitation, to advocate for its values, this small Talmudic lesson has large implications. The collective voice of our scholars from centuries ago has an extraordinary echo for those of us who take its wisdom seriously. Each of these actions is an investment both in one’s self and in the distant future, and each one has a contemporary analog in public policy.
When we speak of honoring parents, we speak of Social Security and Medicare benefits.
When we speak of acts of compassion, we speak of service agencies that tend to the vulnerable.
When we speak of the study hall, we speak of support for education.
When we speak of welcoming visitors, we speak of a hospitable immigration policy.
When we speak of visiting the sick, we speak of affordable and accessible health care.
When we speak of providing for the bride, we speak of attending to the rights and needs of women.
When we speak of burying the dead, we speak of the opportunity for a dignified end of life for all.
When we speak of prayer, we speak of the protections of religious freedom.
When we speak of making peace between people, we speak of effective diplomacy.
If there is a stronger mandate for a progressive agenda, I don’t know what it is. And if there is a countervailing teaching, one that puts the weight of Jewish sensibilities behind privatizing compassion and justice and thus taking it out of the public realm, I have yet to discover it in my years of learning.
I taught those values in my career as a rabbi. Now I am proud to identify with them in my work with the National Jewish Democratic Council, to remind our nation of its wellspring of Jewish wisdom and to remind the Jewish community of the forum in which that wisdom resonates.
The teaching ends with “the study of Torah equals them all.” It has an analog, too: We must never overlook the source of that wisdom: the deep wellsprings of Jewish learning.
(Rabbi Jack Moline is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a political lobbying organization dedicated to promoting Jewish values within the Democratic Party and the political process.)
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