From a Jewish perspective, Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg says the government has no right to stop addressing the needs of the average citizen. Congress doesn't need to be divine, but is showing up too much to ask?
By: Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg
Rabbi Tarfon says, “The day is short, the task is great, the workers indolent, the reward bountiful and the master insistent. You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it.” (Pirkei Avot Chapter 2: Mishna 20 & 21)
Despite the fact that he died almost 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Tarfon might well have been talking about the current government shutdown. Today if he were to re-write his statement it might read, “The day is short and the task is greater than anyone could imagine. Congress is out of session far more than they work despite the insistence from the polity. Not only do they fail to finish the work, but they have decided to neglect it entirely.”
You might be saying to yourself that it is the other party’s fault that we find ourselves in this current situation. I'm not writing this blog post to pass judgment or offend political ideology. Rather, I think that from a Jewish perspective, the government has no right to stop addressing the needs of the average citizen. In fact, Judaism’s earliest history would demand that our leaders answer to the people or be eschewed for better leaders.
As we experience the indolence in Washington, Jews around the world are reading from the book of the Genesis, the first book of the Torah. Genesis has a strong ethos of working considerably hard for what matters and of taking care of those in your charge. The book opens with the greatest example of historical work with the creation of the world. I am certainly not asking Congress to be divine, but is showing up too much to ask?
Noah works hard to build that ark and gather everyone. Abraham traveled pretty far to start a religion and build a people. Jacob had to work 14 years to marry the woman of his dreams, and his son Joseph basically worked his way up to Egyptian royalty from prison. Don’t even get me started on Moses because he essentially puts our government to shame.
I know for a fact that the overwhelming majority of our government is familiar with the Genesis stories and yet somehow they seem to forget the lessons they learned in religious school. Those of us who attended Jewish summer camp probably learned the song for the latter part of Rabbi Tarfon’s statement and maybe even sang it with great joy.
Perhaps instead of writing letters to our congressmen, we should send them video clips of us singing the song accompanied by the sounds of a ringing bell that might wake them up, and help them see the damage they are doing to average Americans who pay little attention to the bevy of political rhetoric surrounding the shut-down.
Since we live in the Philadelphia area, we could symbolically film our clip next to the Liberty Bell. Oh wait, the museum is closed because of the shutdown. Better make that right outside the bell.
Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Yardley.