The Power of Relationships and Partnerships

Rabbi Mark Diamond
Executive Vice President, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Parshat Behar/Bechukotai: Leviticus 25:1-27:34
Haftorah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

One of the concerns of the Book of Leviticus, and especially of this parashah is the eved ivri, the Hebrew slave. The Torah teaches: "When your brother becomes impoverished and comes under your authority, you shall uphold him; let him live by your side as your brother." (Leviticus 25:35)

Rabbi Moshe Alshekh raises a grammatical question about this verse. He notes that the verses that precede this sentence are all phrased in the plural: "As for the cities of the Levites, the house in the cities they hold--the Levites shall forever have the right of redemption. Such property as may be redeemed from the Levites...shall be released through the jubilee...But the unenclosed land about their cities cannot be sold, for that is their holding for all time." (Lev.25:32-34). However, when the Torah begins to discuss how to help a poor person, the language shifts from plural to singular: "When your brother becomes impoverished, then you shall uphold him."

Why this change from the plural to the singular? Rabbi Alshekh answers: Normally, when someone is in need of assistance, everyone defers to his/her neighbor. "So-and-so is closer to the needy individual," we say. Or, "someone else is wealthier and has greater resources to help out." 

This is precisely why the Torah speaks about this mitzvah in the singular. It is your obligation to strengthen the hand of a poor person in your midst. Don't think that you can pass on this responsibility to someone else. It is your obligation to do what is right and just.

I find great wisdom and practical insights in this teaching from the parashah. There are some things in life that we can ask others to do for us or instead of us. But there are many other things that only we can do by and for ourselves.Tzedakah is one such mitzvah; communal involvement is another. The strength of our Jewish community�the Jewish Federation, the Board of Rabbis, and many other fine institutions and organizations�lies in the talented and generous individuals who "step up to the plate" and make a difference with their time, energy and resources.

This week I have been privileged to participate in programs and meetings that reflect the Torah's message of personal commitment and involvement. On Monday the Board of Rabbis held the installation of our 2009-11 Executive Committee led by our dynamic new President Rabbi Denise L. Eger. The evening was filled with Torah learning and prayer, inspiring music and a large and diverse group of guests--rabbis, bishops, non-Jewish clergy, congregants and leaders from the communal, civic and synagogue realms--celebrating Rabbi Eger's historic election as Board President. I had the personal pleasure of presenting special leadership awards to Federation President John Fishel and outgoing Board of Rabbis President Rabbi Stewart Vogel.

To my mind, the underlying theme of the installation program was the power of relationships and partnerships. As the week unfolded, I saw further evidence of this in a Board of Rabbis open forum on the housing crisis in Los Angeles, and a meeting of religious leaders and activists to plan interfaith programs to combat hunger in our midst. Each of these three gatherings brought together a wide array of leaders who understand what they can do as individuals, and how much more they and their organizations can accomplish by building coalitions, collaborations and alliances.

Each of us has a unique role to play in strengthening and improving life in our community. The power of one person is impressive. The power of a small group of talented and committed men and women working together is greater. And the power of a larger group of individuals committed to forging partnerships--across boundaries of race, religion, ethnicity, denomination, class, gender and sexual orientation--is limitless.

We can achieve miracles when we study, pray, debate, listen and learn together. If we do so, surely we will breathe new meaning into the words we chant this Shabbat when we conclude the public reading of the Book of Leviticus: Hazak, hazak, ve-nit-hazek. Let us be strong as individuals, and let us strengthen our community together.