Parashat Hukkat

Tools of Justice

Our actions and our words must be in line with one another.

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Even today, designating countries in these regions as "developing nations" reinforces a continuum of value in which industrialization and economic success define "development," while indigenous cultures, religions, and social systems languish under the label "undeveloped" or "underdeveloped." If pride and a sense of self-worth are essential human qualities, then this language is a recipe for humiliation.

With this in mind, the UN General Assembly changed the name of its Special Unit for Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC) to reflect its evolving perspective. It became the Special Unit for South-South cooperation, reflecting a growing commitment to value-neutral language in many academic and international development circles.

Choice of Words

Closer to home, the school where I teach has wrestled with the terminology of its Tikkun Olam program. Under the guidance of Rabbi Mark Baker, "Community Service," which implies that the exchange is uni-directional, has given way to "Community Outreach," which opens a space for mutual exchange, for reciprocity, for true relationship.

We should not, of course, become so focused on finding the ideal discourse that we hesitate to act. In this parashah, for example, we can critique Moses' choice of language, but we must recognize that he also gave the people water. Parashat Hukkat teaches us to be watchful of the language we use and, simultaneously, to stay involved. May we never obfuscate the truth with our language. May we never limit human beings with labels from which they may never escape. May language be a tool of justice, a tool of building a civil society throughout the world--North and South.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.