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Have You No Decency? Midrash and the Centrality of Love

The following is adapted from a d’var Torah given by RRC student Mackenzie Reynolds in early 2017 at a gathering of congregational presidents and rabbis at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in New York.

“If I have found grace in your sight, don’t bury me in Egypt,” Jacob asks of Joseph in this week’s parsha, Vay’khi. A midrash continues:

Jacob says: “Do this for me as a true service of love, and not because you are afraid or because decency demands it.”

Do this for me as a true service of love.”

We are here today as leaders of Reconstructionist congregations and havurot to talk about what it means to strengthen our communities and neighbors in these times. In these times that are increasingly divisive, frightening, schismatic, how do we strengthen our resolve, our hearts, our visions? How do we affirm to our communal partners that we stand with them in struggle, in work for liberation? How do we affirm to ourselves and our partners that we will continue through this world together?

Do this for me as a true service of love, and not because you are afraid, or because decency demands it.”

Let me say it again: “Not because you are afraid or because decency demands it.”

What is the source of your work for justice? Is it fear? So often, we are afraid of the path we are on, afraid of what will happen if our country, city, county continues down this path.

Afraid of the endpoint of unchecked discriminatory policing. Afraid of what happens if the tide of homelessness and poverty does not change. Afraid of the mounting anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Black racism in this country. And that fear motivates us to take action for change. When we act from fear, we are often on the defensive. It is hard to focus on the needs of the people around us. We move ourselves into the center, even if other people are more directly targeted. This midrash challenges us to find a different source for taking action. To move not from fear, but from love: from love of our neighbors, from love of ourselves, love helps us to see through the jagged edges of fear to the hope and hard work of creating safety together. Responding to fear with love creates openness amid the possibility of a different world.

Is decency the source of your work for justice? Decency does demand action. Humans, created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, carry with us that divine image. We are obligated to treat each other with the fullness of the honor that image demands. Our world has devised many ways to belittle and destroy our humanity. Decency demands we act to restore it. But grounding action in decency alone is limited. It meets the very baseline of acknowledging our humanity, but it does not celebrate and defend it. When we act from love, we are not just motivated by the humanity of the people around us, but a real concern for their burdens and needs. Loving our neighbors freely and generously means meeting them where they are, as they are. Seeing their lives and their needs, the divine image of their humanity, and joining with them.

Do this for me as a service of true love.”

Jacob could rely on many grounds for his request: being Joseph’s father, the tenuous fabric of their restored relationship, an appeal to human decency, and fear for what would happen if his body remained in Egypt. All legitimate. But the rabbis in our midrash cut through the noise, so that the request made to Joseph is clear: do this for love.

Our actions in this world can and do have many motivations. We act from fear, from the drive to uphold and maintain human decency, from the many ways we honor our community members, from our obligations to our traditions, Jewish, American, and more.

What we need to remember is that love will strengthen our communities. That we will rebuild this world from love. The depth, complexity, and solidity of a love that fights for each other. That follows through on challenging requests like returning a body from Mitzrayim to Canaan. A love that is the response to the very reality of our being alive. A love that is given freely. We build and strengthen our communities and neighbors with love. Our action in this world is love. Our prayer is love.

May we keep our focus not on decency, not on fear, but on the creative, challenging, life-giving source that is love. May it renew us, strengthen us on our way, and affirm our connections. Olam hesed yibaneh, we will build this world on love.

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The Reconstructionist Network