Monday, December 17, 2012

Compassion: From the Bible's Joseph to Bruce Springsteen


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S MOST RECENT hit single, “We Take Care of Our Own” has been played non-stop throughout this year, especially during President Obama’s re-election campaign, the democratic national convention and at his victory party in Chicago. When my father in law introduced me to the song a number of months ago, I felt conflicted by its message.

On the one hand, Springsteen correctly exhorts the American people to overcome our selfish habits and take care of our country and our people. Yet on the other hand, while we strive to be one big family in the USA, the truth is that we are much more than a family that takes care of our own. We take care of everyone. We view our role in the world as a country that will do its utmost to ensure peace and democracy and opportunity in every corner of the world. Sometimes we have to tread gently, like recent events have shown with the Arab Spring, and other times we can be more assertive. Is Springsteen’s message to take care of our own in contradiction to this value?

When Joseph understood from Pharaoh’s dreams that the famine would not only affect Egypt but would spread to other countries, he didn’t inform and advise them to begin saving and storing their produce. Did Joseph not care about the inhabitants of those lands? In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph gives Benjamin a larger portion of food and clothing than the rest of his other brothers. Did Joseph not care for them because of the way he was treated?

Bruce Springsteen Jewish

I think it’s fair to say that both Joseph and Springsteen care deeply about everyone, but recognize that priority must be given to their own. We can all agree that as much as Springsteen cares about his fellow Americans, he cares doubly as much for his family. Joseph too: as much as he cared about the other inhabitants of the world, he loved and respected his fellow Egyptians that much more. Moreover, as much as he loved his half-brothers, Benjamin was his full brother, so he naturally had a greater affinity for him.

We see a similar concept in Jewish law as it relates to giving Tzedakah. “Aniyay Ircha Kodem,” our greatest priority is to give Tzedakah to people in our city before anywhere else; even more than the needy of Israel (according to most opinions). Does that mean Jewish law places little to no value on giving charity to needy people outside of our community? No, it means that the rabbis adopt the Springsteen approach to take care of our own. Frankly, if everyone takes care of their own community, we would not need to care for someone who is from a different one!

In the spirit of “taking care of our own,” there are many issues that the Orthodox Jewish community needs to address, be it the recent sexual abuse scandals, the drug and alcohol abuse that plagues our communities, and the way in which we treat homosexuals.  But after the events on Friday in Newtown, Connecticut when a young man brutally murdered 20 kindergarteners and 6 adults, what’s most important right now is for all of us to “take care of our own” in a different way. Let’s hug our children tighter. Shower them with more love and affection than ever before. Help them to understand that God’s children are placed in this world to be forces for good and people filled with compassion and loving kindness.

We are tasked to be “Oheiv Et Habriyot,” lovers of all the inhabitants of the world. At the same time, we need to be “Springsteenian” and take care of our own; to shower our children with extra love, attention, and guidance so that they can grow up to be a true beacon of light unto the nations. May evil cease to exist and I pray that God wipe away all the tears from our faces. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is a co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog and a dynamic Orthodox rabbi. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.