By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Is lack of knowledge a sin? When we act, or fail to act – out of some form of ignorance – do we bear any responsibility? The book of Leviticus, which we began reading last week, answers unequivocally. Not only should we be held accountable for our behavior, we are also required to bring a sin offering to atone for it. Whether intentional or accidental, whether individual or communal, when an injustice is uncovered, it is our sacred duty to right what has been wronged.
Last Sunday morning, at 6 a.m., I boarded a plane to New Orleans with our Confirmation class. For four days, a very talented and insightful trip organizer led us on a tour of a city, that since late August of 2005, has been struggling to fully reclaim its moniker – “The Big Easy.” And though we had a lot of fun eating beignets at Café Du Monde and wandering through a giant warehouse of Mardi Gras floats, the focus of our trip was what we call “service-learning.”
Through volunteer work, we immersed ourselves in the stories of tragedy, loss, resilience and hope, that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We spent many hours reflecting on our experience, identifying the root causes that have kept so many of Katrina’s survivors impoverished more than a dozen years after the storm, and wondering what place eight well-educated, well-meaning, and comparatively privileged young Jews, their rabbi, and Education Director have in the lives of people we had never met and might never meet again, hundreds of miles from home.
We asked ourselves this question as we toured the lower Ninth ward, passing the dozens of empty lots where houses once stood, reduced now to either a concrete slab or a dumping ground of discarded mattresses and furniture.
We asked ourselves this question as we listened to the stories of women and men who had worked their entire adult lives to pay off their homes and their cars and then watched from a distance as everything they owned washed away in an instant, leaving them with only the clothes on their backs.
We asked ourselves this question as we learned that barely ten years after the Mississippi river filled the streets with up to eighteen feet of water, an industrial lobby began asking the state to widen its canals, increasing the likelihood of another levee failure, of another devastating flood in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhood.
Twelve years after Katrina, some of her victims have been marginalized or forgotten, some of her causes ignored, and so much work is left to be done.
And while most of the group had no memory of the hurricane, had never heard of the Army Corps of Engineers, and played no part in enacting the policies that funneled New Orleans’ most financially-insecure residents to its most topographically-challenged spot – all of us, myself included – realized that when it came to understanding the challenges faced by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, we were all a little guilty of the “sin” of lack of knowledge.
It’s not that we didn’t care to know. It’s not that we couldn’t or didn’t want to help. Instead, we came to appreciate and to question the vast distance between our own lives and the lives of those we came to serve – a distance of geography, a distance of demography, and a distance of time.
But then, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
We weeded and mulched in a community garden – a model set up to inspire local residents to grow their own food and flowers, which they could then sell or use for the benefit of own families.
We spent the morning at the First Grace United Methodist Church, preparing lunch for almost 100 locals, many of whom were underserved veterans. I watched as our teens brought smiles and laughter to the faces of these sometimes lonely, but always lively folks, as they shared in the fellowship and intimacy that a meal often inspires. We learned that the church was originally two churches – a black church and a white church – and that in the months after Katrina the two decided to merge, creating one of the most culturally diverse congregations in the city.
We packed thousands of food items at Louisiana’s largest food bank, and toured refrigerated storehouses filled by the warmth of generosity and care of nearby homes and businesses.
We ate lunch at Café Reconcile, a restaurant staffed by otherwise unemployable young men and women, many of whom go on to successful careers because of the training they receive.
At the end of the trip, we sat in a circle behind the Student Center of Tulane University, and I listened in satisfied silence as our students articulately and thoughtfully recapped our time together. Not only were they now fully conversant in the problems that impoverished New Orleans residents face in the aftermath of Katrina, they were also enthusiastic supporters of the solutions.
They could name and identify examples of direct and indirect service, entrepreneurial and political solutions, and methods of advocacy and philanthropy. They had a made a difference over the course of the trip in the lives of dozens of Katrina survivors, but their experience also empowered them and challenged them to examine and address a myriad of issues they identified within their own community – underage drinking and addiction, homelessness in Dallas, and the rapid spread of poverty in areas south, east, and west of their homes.
Most importantly, each of them had internalized and understood on a deep level that our learning and our service were not merely acts of kindness, they were acts of faith. They were authentic expressions of commitment to Judaism’s most sacred values – gemilut chassidim, tzedek, and mishpat – lovingkindness, righteousness, and justice.
In Leviticus chapter 4, we learn: If any person from among the people unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which, by God’s commandments, ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt, or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge, he shall bring a sacrifice.
Rabbi Aaron Samuel ben Israel Kaidanover, in his Torah commentary, Tiferet Shmuel, writes that the most unique aspect of this sacrifice is that it atones for the sin of nefesh achat-one soul – a person who acts alone, who has separated himself from the community. And it is this distance, this separation, that breeds ignorance and ultimately, sin.
We can’t address a problem if we don’t even know that it exists. Finding a solution to the complex issues poverty in New Orleans, or any other societal ill, requires knowledge that can only be attained by closing the distance between ourselves and those who are in need. Only then can we begin to understand the sacrifice it will take to make a difference in their lives.
Our students, on their spring break, gave up many things that were pretty important to them. While their friends were on beaches, or on trips with sports teams, or sleeping late, they were bent over in the grass pulling weeds, in a kitchen chopping vegetables, or lifting and repacking heavy boxes filled with canned goods. They struggled with confronting poverty and injustice face-to-face, soul-to-soul.
And while some spend their vacations shutting the rest of the world out, letting ignorance become a source of bliss, our Confirmation class did the opposite. They let a very difficult part of the world in. And then, they did exactly what our Torah demands – they sacrificed their time and their energy.
They overcame the limitations of their own knowledge, bringing joy and relief to countless individuals, many of whom our students will never even have the opportunity to meet. They closed the distance between themselves those in need, and in discovering the problem, they became a part of the solution. May we all be inspired by their example.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share