The Avodah Blog

Dangerous Unselfishness: The Blessings We Need Urgently Today

This is an edited version of remarks that Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg gave on the Shabbat of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

This parsha–the Torah portion that we read today, the last portion of the book of Genesis–marks the closing of an era.  In it, Jacob dies, and we close the book that showed us how the creation of the world is like the creation of a family.  And we transition to the next great movement in this symphony: The creation of a nation.

Much of the parsha is occupied with a central concern of Jacob’s: the giving of blessings, which have defined his life–from the one that he stole to the one he demanded of an angel.  It seems only fitting that he would close out his life with blessings, finally able to become the kind of person who gives them, rather than taking them no matter what the cost.

He blesses each of his sons, and two of his grandchildren.  He not only names their gifts and their challenges, but alludes to the ways in which they will inform and shape each of their descendants—no longer mere family members, but as entire tribes.  He blesses some with success in battle, some with good work, some with charm, or tenacity, or bravery, or the ability to judge.  He pours unto each exactly what he hopes they will receive from him.

Of course, it’s hard to talk about this without asking the obvious question—what does it mean to give someone a blessing, anyway?

To take a quick step back—I think of prayer as a communication between me and God; it’s an offering up, and sometimes a sort of a receiving.  Blessing, on the other hand, is something that we can give over to other people—something we bestow on one another, rather than to the divine.  It has that same sense of lifting up from our deepest selves, that feeling of bringing something out from our hearts, but instead of releasing it to the transcendent beyond, we give it to someone else.

It’s about allowing love and holiness to come from or through us, and letting it spill out onto other people.  It’s about allowing our own divine image to reach out and touch the divinity in others.

When I was thinking about what I wanted to say today, first I read the parsha, and I had all of these thoughts sort of bubbling through me.  And then, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday, I re-read another beloved text, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop,” given the day before he was assassinated in 1968.  It is powerful.  It is prophetic.  It is a speech by a man who knew that his own death was near.  God, he says, “allowed me to go up to the mountain.” Like Moses.  “And I’ve looked over,” he says, “and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.”  Like the Book of Deuteronomy itself, he reviews what’s happened in the work of civil rights, and what’s needed for the road ahead.  Like Jacob, he knows his time is almost up and he’s trying to bless them with deeper understanding of the gifts and challenges in play for the next chapter.

I’ve read and listened to this speech many times, but it touched me differently this week.

There was one line in particular that stuck out to me, one I’d never really noticed before.

The line was this:

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

It’s in the context of King trying to fortify to those listening for the work yet to come, to remind them that seeing the movement through may demand something real and substantial of them.

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

What does that mean?  “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

It’s a kind of giving over of the self, isn’t it?  An offering up.  Unselfish because it is about giving over to others, for the benefit of others.  Dangerous because, really, it’s not safe.

It’s easy to be unselfish when it’s safe.  When it only takes a moment to sign an online petition or to grab a couple of cans of food that’re already in our pantry to drop them somewhere we’re going anyway.  Those are both good things to do, but they’re certainly safe.  It’s easy to be unselfish when it doesn’t ask much of us.  When it’s not demanding.

Danger implies some risk.  It’s not actually certain if you’ll be OK in the end. But you give over of yourself anyway.

And the more I think of it, this is not unlike blessing.  A giving over of the self, for the benefit of others. Offering something crucial of ourselves, because someone else needs us to at that moment.  Reaching out from the part of us created in God’s image to touch the divine image in someone else.

Acts of service and justice are blessings.  We draw from our light and love.  We bestow. When we put our bodies on the line for a cause we believe in.  When we share our resources.  When we put ourselves at risk interpersonally or professionally to stand up for what’s right.  When we offer what we have for the world’s desperate needs.

These are the ideas that undergird the work that Avodah does. We train Jews, mostly those who are early or very early in their careers, to become lifelong leaders for social and economic justice.  We help them to understand the complexities of the systems that contribute to poverty—that people aren’t just poor because they don’t work hard enough, but because predatory loan structures can entrap people for life; because schools in low socioeconomic areas are more likely to be underfunded; because a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage will make only $15,000 a year.  We support them in their professional growth and give them the tools to prevent burnout. And perhaps most importantly, we give them a Jewish community and the ability to understand this work through the lens of our tradition.

Needless to say, the work at Avodah feels more urgent now than ever.  We may very well find ourselves tested with regards to our religious mandates to protect the vulnerable in our communities, to care for the stranger, to pursue justice and to uphold human dignity.  We may find ourselves wondering if we should pick our battles.  We may feel pressure to keep silent.  We may be concerned about what might happen if we stick our neck out.   But this is the time to stop focusing only on our family or even our own tribes, if you will, to seeing ourselves as part of a larger nation, a larger story.

Dr. King, in his Mountaintop speech, told the story of a man beset by thieves on a dangerous road.  One man saw what was happening, but they passed by, they didn’t stop.  The other one stopped, intervened, got the man safe, administered first aid. He chose not to be, as King put it, “compassionate by proxy“.   The question is not—to paraphrase King here—“If I stop to help this man, if I speak up, if I protest, if I take this risk, what will happen to me?”

But, rather, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Jacob reminds us that we can all learn to stop thinking about what we need, how to take, what ways other people ought to be blessing us, and move into a space of giving over what we have.  Rather than even just giving blessings, we have the ability to make of our lives blessings.  To let the holiness flow from our every word, our every action, our every doing.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

Shabbat Shalom.

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