By Rabbi Rory Katz
There is an unmistakable sound to the delight of recognizing someone who you haven’t seen in a while pop up in one of the video boxes on Zoom. Each time I hear that sound, I feel the longing impatience to gather again in person. As we arrive at Shavuot, that aching wish is especially strong since it is specifically a pilgrimage holiday — a time for traveling long distances to be together in person.
But when we cannot gather physically, we do not only miss out on seeing and embracing our loved ones. We also miss out on confronting the faces of the strangers, the outcasts, the socially marginalized — the people to whom we may not have a deep social connection, but to whom we are still obligated.
This week’s Torah reading implores us: You and your household should rejoice, but do not leave the Levite who is within your gates because they do not have an inheritance so their portion is with you. (Deuteronomy 14:26-27)
Even in normal years, it is easy to get preoccupied in the preparations for the holiday as they pertain to our individual households. This year, without the opportunity to gather, everyone else can feel even more remote than usual: The marginalized are marginalized even further. But, the Torah reminds us, we still cannot forget the people that society leaves unprotected, like the Levite mentioned above or anyone else who the stranger, widow, and orphan who are enumerated two verses later. These categories continue to be relevant, but contemporary society requires us to also attend to the other categories of individuals who lack access to safety, to justice, and to celebration. Our Shavuot observance must include both recalling these marginalized individuals and to practice allyship with them.
Our regular means of volunteering or of advocating for justice may not be accessible right now, but the obligation remains. This year is ideal for exploring new practices. Here are some ideas to get started:
1. Together with your household, learn about who is disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
2. Look through your synagogue directory and call up someone who lives alone just to say hi.
3. Read articles and books written by Jews of color or others
whose perspective is under-represented in the media.
4. Volunteer with an organization like Centro Sol, which delivers free groceries to families living in poverty who did not receive stimulus checks.
This year may take extra effort to celebrate Shavuot, but the obligation to advocate for justice in our communities remains. There is a principle in Torah study that no two subjects are put next to each other by accident. This particular section of Deuteronomy moves from instructions for celebrating festivals to the tithes that need to be left for the Levite, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Let us commit to “tithing” our time so that practicing allyship with the marginalized is a part of all of our festivals.
Rabbi Rory Katz is the spiritual leader of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation.