Way back in the 80s, when most of my friends were enjoying the excesses of the Reagan years (for the second time) (and trust, me I never understood the Reagan years the first time around; the second set had me reeling)... I digress. As usual.
AS I was saying, while my friends were out merging and acquiring and amassing small to medium fortunes, I took a sharp left turn, quit graduate school (and the full fellowship that had been attached to my acceptance) and became a political activist. Or, as my parents still say - I became a professional beggar and street walker. Really, I went to work for ACORN: the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. It was long before it had become a dirty word, long before the Tea Partiers t-bagged it. In fact, it was way long before social activism and social justice were once again in vogue, having been placed in mothballs somewhen in the 70s.
I loved it. It filled me with purpose - I got to do good, every day. I was changing the world, every day, one stop sign, one signature, one voice at a time. I made next to no money. One of the unspoken ideals of the organization was, in order to organize the poor, you have to be poor. I didn't care. There were roommates (all fiery-eyes co-workers who were in the same boat with the same single-minded zeal). There was creative finances There were parents in a pinch, who clearly were appalled that I'd given up academia, but were willing to let me run with this crazy political thing, hoping it was merely a passing phase, waiting until I met a nice Jewish lawyer, got married and settled down in the suburbs to raise babies, bake cookies and join a country club (not necessarily in that order).
I was in the canvas; we were the fundraisers. While the organizers were out, organizing the poor (or, rousing the rabble as my parents were wont to say) I was out, pounding the pavement (walking the streets), out in the middle income neighborhoods, gaining support and funds for our work. I raised gobs of money. I moved up the ranks - first to Field Manager, running a crew of canvassers out on "turf", and later, Canvas Director, running an office. We raised thousands of dollars, every night, rain or shine, hot or cold, five days a week.
I was on fire. I was so alive then!
As you might guess, staff turnover was pretty high. I did a lot of recruitment and interviewing. First interview was always a group one. This is how I began the interview, every time:
Is housing a right or a privilege? What about access to medical care? How about heat in the winter or cooling in the summer? Money is power - and without it, you have no power. So how do you change things?
I did not grow up with these questions. Frankly, had you asked me not too many years before my ACORN days, my answers may have surprised you. Even so - I pass that off as youthful indiscretion. By the time I became an adult - a thinking, caring, reasoning adult, I had a whole different set of values, and a whole different understanding of the world and how it works.
I bring all this up because the prompt for 16 Elul is Understand. And I have to say - I don't. I didn't 30 years ago, and I don't today.
I don't understand how how you can believe that we do not have a responsibility to make sure that people have a safe place to live- all people: people we love, people we know, people we don't like, people who don't like us. We have abandoned buildings everywhere, and abandoned people, too. I don't understand how we can tolerate this.
I don't understand how we have some of the most advanced medical technology on the planet, magical drugs, healers, hospitals - and yet we feel justified in saying "You have money, so you deserve to be healed. You do not. Sorry. Keep your fingers crossed." Hoping for the best is not a treatment plan. I don't understand how we can allow people to die - every day - because they can't afford even the most basic of medical care.
I don't understand how we throw out tons of food, literally, when there are people who are starving.
I don't understand so much of what seems to drive our society here in the states. Of course, I don't seem to understand so much of what drives society in the world at large, either. As cynical as I am - or pass myself off to be - I am so damned naive. I don't understand hatred. I don't understand bigotry. I don't understand sexism, homophobia, indifference. I don't understand war or corruption.
I just don't.
A few weeks ago, when we read the Torah portion Re'eh, we were commanded "There shall be no needy." And just in case we let something slip through the cracks and there was some needy person, we were commanded to give the needy person whatever it was they needed, freely, graciously. Don't believe in God? No problem - do all of this, demand this, because it is the right thing, the human thing to do. How can it not be that?
If you had to look someone in the eye and say - sorry, no food for you; no house; no care; no money; no voice; no life - could you? Not to the masses, but to a single person, standing before you, asking for help - could you turn that person away, condemn him or her to death?
We cannot stand idly by, while there is want or need. We cannot. To do so would be to turn our backs on our humanity. We must work for a world in which there are no needy. Here's what I understand today, without any hesitation - What's expected of me, of humanity? Seek justice, love mercy and kindness, walk humbly with God.
(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson