I have a friend who is a Presbyterian minister, who asked me this week if I could tell him about the word tzedek. He was especially interested in the word tzedakah.
The first thing that came to mind was Tzedek tzedek tirdof – “justice justice you shall pursue,” from Deuteronomy 16:18.
I told him that Jews pursue justice through tzedakah, gemilut chesidim, mitzvot, and Torah.
Tzedakah is monetary gifts in support of people and institutions who are in need. I pointed out that this is not the same as charity, and we had a long conversation about that.
Gemulit chesadim, acts of loving kindness.
Mitzvot, the commandments; fulfilling God’s commandments by living ethical and moral lives.
And Torah, engaging with our sacred text and its messages.
But after our conversation, I was thinking about tzedek and this week’s Torah portion, Chaya Sara, the life of Sarah, and realized that the underlying theme of justice in Judaism has to do with community and relationships. Justice involves obligations that we have to one another, and to the Divine.
This week’s Torah portion, which is the only one named for a woman, begins with her death. And yet it is suffused with Sarah’s presence, as we listen in while Abraham goes through a complex and carefully choreographed bargaining session to purchase a burial site for her.
We eavesdrop on the search for and discovery of a suitable wife for Sarah’s son Isaac, and the complicated negotiations and family dynamics involved in uprooting Rebecca from her home. And the payoff? The Torah tells us that Isaac is comforted on the loss of his mother.
Only then does Abraham remarry, but at the end of his life it is with Sarah that he is laid to rest.
Torah doesn’t usually tell us about people’s emotions, but here we experience the deep sorrow that Abraham and Isaac experienced with Sarah’s death.
I find this particularly touching, because the last words we heard from Sarah were bitter and jealous. In fact, we don’t hear much about her good side at all. She laughs when God says she’ll have a child and then lies about it, she’s cruel to Hagar and jealous of Ishmael, and not very nice to Abraham either.
But these failings aren’t the whole person, and I am glad that the Torah tells us that her absence was felt by her family.
Several years ago, a graduate of Harvard’s Divinity School wrote about an episode when, as a student, she was confronted by a professor who asked what she did when visiting patients in the hospital.
She said that she mostly talked with them about their families. He asked if she prayed with them. No, she said. Do you talk about God? Not very much. About religion? No. About the meaning of their lives? Sometimes, she answered.
She wrote: “I felt derision creeping into the professor’s voice. “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”
“Well, they talk. I mostly listen.”
Here’s how she tells the next part of the story:
Later that week in class, the professor regaled the students with the conversation, and said with derision, “That was this student’s understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person’s spiritual life went! Talking about other people’s families!”
“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student-chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”
She wrote, “My body went numb with shame. At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions. Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.”
Thirteen years later, Kerry Egan, who went on to spend her career as a hospice chaplain, wrote “today, without hesitation or uncertainty, I would give you the same answer [that I gave the professor]. Mostly, [dying people] talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.”
Kerry Egan learned what her professor had not – that when facing our mortality, people talk about their families, because that is how we talk about the meaning of our lives, what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls the Why in our lives.
Judaism offers an answer the question of Why: because we are part of something greater than ourselves.
We find meaning in relationships, not abstract images or concepts. We see our lives through the lens of the loves that we shared, the love we didn’t share, the people who we wish we’d loved more.
People who work with the dying often say that no one expresses regret about spending too little time at the office. I will add that I’ve never heard someone say they wish they’d spent more time talking to God… although I often hear people say they wish they’d spent more time with their Jewish community, as well as their families.
We find God in the minutia of our lives, in love and laughter, in the joys and the sorrows that we share. When we are in relationship with family and community, that is when we are in relationship with the Divine.
And when we are in relationship, when we understand that we are part of something greater than ourselves, tzedek comes easily. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue. Not seek, but pursue. As actively as we seek out loving and supportive relationships.
Our foremother Sarah was not perfect, but she loved and she was loved, and she was remembered with love. May we all be so blessed.
This is the sermon I gave at Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat.