I don’t want to give away any secrets, but as I write this, we are still looking forward to Rosh Hashanah and the festivals which fill the month of Tishrei. That said as you are reading this we should be in the midst of Sukkot already, with just Simchat Torah left to look forward to; or it’s possible that all of these festivals are already fading into the background as we wait for Chanukah (I’m feeling like I’m time travelling as I write this article).
The month of Tishrei is full to bursting with festivals: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah ensure that it is the busiest festive month in the Jewish calendar. Perhaps it is therefore intentional, that Cheshvan, the month which follows Tishrei, is completely empty of festivals or fast days. The absence of any special features in the month led to it being called Mar Cheshvan – bitter Cheshvan. As a Rabbi I usually think of it as a gift from the Jewish calendar, offering time in which I am able to catch my breath after the frenetic energy of the preceding month.
That said the month has not been allowed to remain unfilled, and recently the bitterness of this month has been removed, and it has been reclaimed as Jewish Social Action Month. This global initiative was started in 2005 with support from the Government of Israel and Jewish communal leaders from across the world. The idea was to focus on projects around the theme of tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). This year Cheshvan begins on October 17, and the UJA Federation are looking to support projects across New York.
After we conclude our Tishrei festivals, the three Torah portions which follow (and fill this secular month) serve as a reminder, in three very different contexts, of why social action should be at the heart of what we try to do as a Jewish community.
In the beginning, with the Torah portion of Bereishit, in our first creation story we, as human beings are created, to be responsible for all the other animals which God had previously created (Genesis 1:28). As the final part of that creation we are given the duty of caring for it, with this role further emphasized in the next chapter when God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden ‘to till it and tend to it’ (Genesis 2:15).
Ten generations later in the second Torah portion Noach, the man for whom the portion is named is essentially given the responsibility for saving all of creation. Having witnessed the wickedness of the earth, God decided to start again, and selected Noach as a righteous man in his generation (Genesis 6:9) to ensure the survival of the animals. Following the flood it was Noach and his sons who were responsible for replenishing the earth (Genesis 9:1).
Ten generations later in the third Torah portion Lech Lecha, we meet Abraham, we know very little about him, but we do read in the initial blessing received from God that ‘in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). We see how this happens with the way that Abraham’s story continues, but from the beginning we know that others will be blessed through him, and significantly through his descendants.
As we read about these three Torah portions we can see that our responsibility is to the earth, to the animals and to our fellow human beings. With this sacred duty Jewish Social Action Month comes as a timely reminder for us to remember this legacy and find ways to truly fulfill Abraham’s initial task to quite simply ‘be a blessing’ (Genesis 12:2).