I was honored to be invited to Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal as a student rabbi-in-residence in the spring of 2013. I had recently returned from a 1o-day rabbinical student delegation to El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service, and I was eager to share my experience with this community. This sermon gave me the opportunity to help put the lessons I learned in El Salvador into a Jewish communal context.
Going a Long Way: A Jewish Response to Global Poverty
January, 2013. Ciudad Romero, El Salvador. 35 degrees C.
The bright morning sun warms the soft, brown earth. I pick up the piocha, the pick-axe, and test the balance, the weight. Lift, aim, swing. Lift, aim, swing. Repeat for two hours, remembering to stop regularly for water breaks.
In the afternoon, coconut milk sipped from the fruit cut down right off the tree. Lots of nutrients in there to give strength for the rest of the day.
At dinner time, bean-filled pupusas and fresh-squeezed watermelon juice to restore strength after a long day.
And under the clear, starry sky, my colleagues and I learn about life in Ciudad Romero from the women and men who have made a new life for themselves after a tragic civil war.
I remember clearly Naomi Marques, the nun who runs a self-sufficient Catholic community center. She and her small team organize community meetings and plan local projects with their neighbors. Her faith compels her to work tirelessly for the wellbeing of others, and her job training, advocacy, and morale efforts have transformed Ciudad Romero for eighteen years.
Naomi and the other nuns also run a guest house where groups of visitors can lodge for a week or two. Last January, on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish World Service, I had the privilege of staying with them, of hearing their stories and sharing my own. Along with seventeen other rabbinical and Jewish education students, I came to El Salvador in order to try to articulate a Jewish response to global poverty. I left with a prayer for courage and compassion.
God of Mercy, open my heart to your creations.
In 1980, civil war broke out in El Salvador. The assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero, the nation’s most strident defender of the poor, launched an assault of violence that swept across the country. This is the story of one small town.
Nueva Esparta was located in the hills of El Salvador. A small village of 365 people, Nueva Esparta was defenseless against the Salvadoran army’s policy of Tierra Arrasada, or Scorched Earth. The town was decimated, and its inhabitants sought sanctuary in nearby Panama.
Their temporary haven was safely tucked out of harm’s way. So far out of the way, in fact, that no roads reached their new land. The former residents of Nueva Esparta flew in by helicopter, built their houses with what was at hand, and made a slow and quiet life for themselves far from home.
They expected to stay the three months, six at the most. Instead, they remained eleven years.
When the civil war ended in 1993, the community of Nueva Esparta returned to El Salvador with determination to make a new life for themselves. Their old home had been razed, so the community was given new land in the Lempa River Valley. They renamed their community Ciudad Romero after their nation’s fallen hero, and they prepared to start over in a country that was doing the same.
Today, Ciudad Romero is one of nearly one hundred communities in the Lower Lempa region of El Salvador united in the grassroots organizations La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association. Working together, farmers have established seed banks to help recover from floods. Fishermen share tools that protect the river and feed communities. Growers avoid dangerous chemicals, construction workers build new hospitals, and ever more students graduate from high school.
The average family earns about $2,000 a year.
God of Healing, bring comfort to those who struggle.
Our rabbis teach us that we bear collective responsibility for the betterment of humankind. Talmud teaches us:
Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not is responsible for the sins of his household. If [he can prevent] his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens. If [he can prevent] the whole world, he is responsible for the sins of the whole world.
We are bound up in the world, and what we do makes a difference. The words I say, the money I donate, the places I travel to – each of these makes an impact. The echoes of my behavior reverberate through human society. Though I may not myself be able to hear these echoes, Jewish tradition teaches that I am still responsible for them. Through my actions, I change the lives of others.
Aboriginal activist, Lilla Watson adds an important layer to this teaching:
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
The European Union, the United States, and Canada all have disproportionate global influence. But citizens of countries in the Global South, which was formerly called the “third world” or the “developing world,” are not simply recipients of aid, holding their hands out to wealthier nations. These individuals impact us just as we impact them. Too many politicians and experts attempt to solve global poverty while ignoring the voices of the people they seek to help. In doing so, they shut out the possibility that we, too, are in need of liberation.
I experienced some of my own liberation during my time in Ciudad Romero.
Digging irrigation trenches made me acutely aware of my body in totally new wasy. Following the lead of my Salvadoran work partner, I learned to pay close attention to my muscles and to focus on how I could use tools most effectively. I learned to lift the piocha above my head just so, and to let it fall with its own weight onto the spot I was aiming for.
Eating and sleeping there gave me a treasury of gifts: the bursting flavor of a locally-grown banana, the soothing warmth of a tropical winter evening, the reliable crowing of the morning rooster. These smells and tastes and sights and sounds brought my normal life into a stark relief.
I prayed with people of a different faith, told jokes with people of a different language, and shared stories with people of a different history from me. And I am richer for it.
My journey in El Salvador taught me not only that my life makes a difference in the lives of others; it also taught me to open my eyes to the influence others can have on me.
Eternal Thou, connect me to your loved ones.
To focus our attention on how we can understand our international influence, let me offer one Jewish model for right decision-making.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a 20th-century Jewish philosopher and spiritual teacher, offers us the image of what he calls “the bechirah point.”
Imagine two old-time armies, stationed on a wide plain. Your army controls a certain amount of territory, and the opposing army likewise controls some territory. The full breadth of this wide plain represents all the good deeds that you might ever do. The territory your army controls represents your righteous behavior. The opposing army is that part of you which prevents you from acting righteously, and their territory symbolizes the good deeds you hold yourself back from.
To think of it another way: The territory that you control represents the good deeds that you already do naturally. These are the easy things that you don’t think about in your daily life; they’re simply part of your routine.
The territory that your army is trying to possess represents the good deeds that you can’t do right now. They’re beyond your ability of action, so you can’t even sincerely consider doing them.
The front line between the two armies is the “bechirah point.” In Hebrew, bechirah means “choice,” and this border between what you do naturally and what you cannot do at all is where you make ethical decisions.
Take the simple example of sharing. If a friend asks to borrow a dollar, odds are you’ll give it to her without a second thought. But if a total stranger asks to borrow your car, odds are you wouldn’t even consider it. Giving a dollar to your friend is firmly in your territory; lending your car to a stranger is firmly beyond your territory. The bechirah point is somewhere in the middle; it represents the situations in which you have to make a decision. Say a friend asks to borrow your car; it’s probably not a definite yes or no – you’d have to think about it. And if a stranger asks to borrow a dollar, you might like a moment to consider. These decisions are in the front line, they are at the bechirah point.
Now, here’s the key: Once you’ve made a decision about an issue at your bechirah point—that is, once you’ve determined what for you is the right thing to do—then your army moves a little bit. That decision that you’ve just made now enters your territory and becomes part of your moral landscape. The front line moves, and the bechirah point changes. You’ve incorporated a new ethic into your daily life, and a new decision now awaits your consideration.
Each of us has a bechirah point when it comes to facing global development. There are some actions we can take that seem so easy that we don’t need to think about them, and there are other actions that seem far beyond what we’re capable of. What are some of the tough choices in the middle that confront us in responding to global poverty? Our Torah portion inspires us to consider three such areas: Speaking, giving, and visiting.
This week, our parashah is Emor, which means “Speak.” Now, it’s nearly impossible to know what to say in the face of global poverty. But Jewish tradition urges us to try. The Reform movement, in the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, emphasizes our responsibility to “seek dialogue and joint action … [to] bring peace, freedom, and justice to our world.”
We begin forming our words by learning. While there’s a sea of information available on global development, Dr. Robert Chambers offers a succinct summary of the field in the book Knowing Poverty. He outlines four conventional ways to evaluate global poverty: income, material lack, capability deprivation, and a multi-dimensional method. In addition to these four approaches, he adds a fifth, too often neglected: “voices of the poor.” In listening to the stories of those who live and die in the Global South, we can better imagine their experience and hear from them what may be helpful. We open our ears and our hearts before opening our mouths.
Then, having acquired some basic information, we are ready to share our thoughts with our friends, our family, and our society. Specific policies in our society enter our bechirah point. For instance, members of this community can become knowledgeable and outspoken about a new shift in Canada’s foreign aid policy.
As I understand it, Canada’s foreign aid money has recently shifted jurisdictions from the now defunct Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Whereas the CIDA had formerly been the primary decision-maker about where Canada’s foreign aid money would go, the new arrangement will now accept bids from NGOs as to how best to allocate those resources. This policy shift opens up a marketplace of interests that advocate for foreign aid resources.
As a new program, much is now up in the air. This is a ripe time to have your voice heard. Contributing to the public discussion on Canada’s new approach to foreign aid, communicating with representatives about how you think your money should be spent, and speaking ultimately with votes can have national and international impact. The words we say can ripple out into the world with profound reach. As Proverbs teaches us: שְֹפַת-אֱמֶת תִּכּוֹן לָעַד, “A word of truth endures forever” (12:19).
The second realm of bechirah point is that of giving. Parashat Emor contains a repetition of one of the most essential teachings our tradition offers on social justice: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove altogether the corners of your field or gather the gleanings from your harvest. To the poor and to the stranger you shall leave them. I, the Eternal, am your God” (Lev. 23:22). In other words, the People of Israel are commanded that not all we earn belongs to us; we are required to give some of our wealth to the marginal and the needy.
The Mishnah, the first authoritative compilation of rabbinic writing from the 1st century, devotes an entire tractate to this concept, called peah. This tractate opens with a list of “deeds that have no measure,” and the very first one is peah. There is no upper limit to how much wealth we can donate; the rabbis only insist that we leave for others at least one-sixtieth of what we bring in.
So how do we decide how much to give? Maimonides in the 12th century tries to offer some guidelines. He teaches that every household should give “according to how much [they] are able.” The ideal, he instructs, is to give 20% of our possessions, and the average gift should be 10%. If we are blessed with the ability to spare a large portion of our income, Maimonides argues that we ought to do just that.
Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, takes Maimonides’ principle to the next level. He argues that every person should keep only what he or she needs to live and give the rest away to causes that will save lives. If $30,000 will keep you alive for a year, then you should donate every dollar over that amount to those whose lives are in peril. This may mean you’re donating 20, 80, 200 thousand dollars each year. He writes:
If we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don't do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life -- not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction. 
For most of us, the bechirah point for how much money to donate will fall somewhere between the Mishnah’s one-sixtieth and Peter Singer’s entire savings account. Let me make a plug here for tomorrow’s Torah discussion in the chapel service, where we’ll be exploring in more depth Jewish texts that advise us how much of our money to give. But whether you come tomorrow or not, giving due consideration to the bechirah point of how much money it’s right for us to give is an important part in fulfilling our Jewish responsibility to address global poverty.
Then it’s a matter of determining where to send our money. The website charitynavigator.org provides helpful information about how non-profit organizations spend their money, and if you’re looking for a recommendation, I’m not embarrassed to suggest the American Jewish World Service. AJWS partners with local, on-the-ground organizations to provide aid in distinct areas, and AJWS is flexible in its support of these organizations to help them get the resources that their specific communities need.
Finally, our Torah portion’s third area of bechirah points is visiting. This week’s parashah includes a description of the major holidays of the Jewish calendar, including the festivals Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Moses insists that the sacrifices for these festivals be offered directly to God. Centuries later, the site of these offerings becomes the Temple in Jerusalem. To fulfill their sacred obligation, Jews from all over the land would undergo a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year. These holy occasions were sacred gatherings of diverse people in common cause.
Although I was not exactly on pilgrimage in El Salvador, I most certainly felt a sense of purpose, the sacred task of bearing witness to life in Ciudad Romero. Living alongside the animals, becoming intimate with the soil, and spending time with families at work and at play gave me an entirely new perspective. I was transformed during those ten days, humbled by both the vast differences and the unexpected similarities between our lives.
With this bechirah point in mind, we can transform every trip into an opportunity to radically change how we see the world. Professor Jo Ann Van Engen of Calvin College teaches visitors to poor communities to “focus on learning, not doing,” to “spend time with the locals,” and to commit to joining the global community of activists upon our return. Opening ourselves to meaningful encounters on our travels can enrich our understanding of global poverty and inspire us to work for a better tomorrow.
Source of Peace, help me bring wholeness to your world.
In this week’s parashah, God instructs Aaron and his sons to attend daily to a flame outside God’s inner sanctum. Today, we honor this ancient tradition by keeping a light ever shining above the Torah. We orient ourselves toward the ner tamid, the eternal light, reminded of the holy presence that it symbolizes.
This light reminds us of the virtues of Emor: speaking, giving, and visiting. It focuses our attention on our bechirah points in each of these three areas, pushing us to make decisions that can truly affect global development. And it inspires us to take after Naomi and her nuns, following our faith to work for justice.
God of Mercy, open our hearts to your creations.
God of Healing, bring comfort to those who struggle.
Eternal Thou, connect us to your loved ones.
Source of Peace, help us bring wholeness to your world.
 Shabbat 54b.
 Strive for Truth: The Selected Writings of Rabbi E. E. Dressler; Part Two, translated by Aryeh Carmell. Cited in AJWS’ curriculum “Expanding the Universe of Obligation: Judaism, Justice and Social Responsibility, 3rd Edition” p. 6-3.
 “A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism” (1999). Available: https://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/platforms/statement-principles-reform-judaism.
 Edited by Karen Broke and Rosemary McGee.
 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ani’im 7:5.
 Peter Singer, “The Singer Solution To World Poverty.” New York Times, September 5, 1999. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/05/magazine/the-singer-solution-to-world-poverty.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.
 Lev. 23:8, 18, 36.
 In The Other Side, January/February 2000, pp. 20-33. Available: http://www.usatodayeducate.com/images/crp/short-term.pdf.
 Lev. 24: 2ff.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”