Archive for the ‘Spirit of Service’ Category

‘A Renewal of Public Conscience’

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

My friend Amalie said the other day that Barack Obama’s election has spurred her to re-engage with the world once again — she’s reading the paper more closely, staying up on the news, paying attention to what’s going on. The experience was a bit jarring for her. It made her realize just how dis-engaged she’d become in the past eight years.

My guess, from anecdotal evidence, is that she’s far from alone.

Reading the Torah portion for this week — parsha Bo — I was struck by a thousands-year-old Biblical parallel for large-scale public re-engagement.

We are currently in the third parsha of Exodus, smack dab in the middle of the Passover story. In a series of escalating confrontations, Moses tells Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free, so they can worship God in the desert. Pharaoh, as is well-known, declines again and again — despite ever-worsening plagues. Blood. Frogs. Vermin. Wild beasts. Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Finally, after the tenth and last plague — death of every first-born child — Pharaoh relents: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31)

Next, though, comes a part of the story that I never knew before, growing up. On their way to freedom, a large portion of the Egyptian population (roughly one-third) gives the departing slaves “silver and gold, and clothing.” (Exodus 12:35)

Here’s the midrashic interpretation, from the Sages:

The silver and gold given (not lent) by the Egyptians constituted a protest against the policies of a royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience. Similar gifts were given to the Jews leaving Babylonia to return to Judea.

In helping the Jews attain their freedom, the ancient Egyptians were awakening, in a sense; shaking free, themselves, from their extended malaise.

Some 3,500 years later, perhaps we are, too.

S.O.S.: Uncle Jon’s Big Idea

Friday, January 30th, 2009

So I was talking to Uncle Jon the other day about ways to take this blog — which came to life during the heat of Obama’s election campaign — and make it relevant to the new reality of the Obama Administration.

One of the recurring pieces I had during the election was called “My Obama Minute.” Essentially, I stole a concept from a writing professor of mine at Iowa — who implored us, if we couldn’t write two hours every day, to write for “one minute a day.” The idea, of course, was that if we sat down to write for that minute, we’d always write more — even if it was only 15 minutes or a half an hour. And sometimes, we’d keep going, for half the day.

With that in mind, I asked supporters to spend one minute a day doing something for the Obama campaign. And I encouraged people to come to this blog and write about their efforts — whether they simply sent $5 to a darkhorse Democrat online, or spent an entire morning at a ballpark rally. Many, many of you wrote in.

How, I wondered, could I encourage the same kind of participation on this blog going forward?

Barack Obama himself pointed to the answer, in his inaugural address:

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

In a page one editorial picking up on this theme, headlined “The Price and Promise of Citizenship,” The Forward asked: “How will we act? How will the Jewish community meet this challenge?”

“Citizenship has a price tag that cannot be discounted or ignored,” The Forward noted. “That’s a Jewish value as old as Sinai and in need of constant updating.”

Consider that, by some reputable estimates, as many as 15% to 20% of Jews in America are poor; in New York City, within a subway ride of Bernie Madoff’s penthouse jail, the concentrations of Jewish poverty are staggering. According to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, nearly half of the city’s Russian-speaking immigrants live in poor Jewish households. Often they are old and ill, but a surprising number of poor Jews have attended college. The elixir of education does not always work its magic. Much more help is needed.

Obama, in calling forth this “new era of responsibility,” is asking us to help.

We’re all busy, of course. We’ve got jobs and kids and ice dams climbing up the roof that could sink the Titanic. Which is why we should not hesitate to start small. Can we give just a few minutes a week to make our communities better?

Start there. See what happens.

Which brings me to Uncle Jon’s idea: Whenever you heed that call to give back to the community — whether it’s mentoring a child, or volunteering at a soup kitchen, or donating blood; maybe you just stopped the car to pick up an empty Starbucks cup rolling around in the gutter — come to this blog and tell us about it.

I want to be expansive about this. You don’t have to join the army. The point is to think, just a little bit differently, about how we can help. About what we can give.

Obama, in his inaugural, spoke of that vital “spirit of service” — people’s “willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.”

So that’s what we’ll call this — Spirit of Service — or “S.O.S.”

Anybody out there do anything to make our world a wee bit better this week? Let’s hear about it.