Parashat Vayehi

Self-Interest & Solidarity

There are many motivators for fighting injustice.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Over the course of the book of Genesis, we witness Jacob's two different responses to the unjust massacre committed by Simon and Levi against the people of Shehem. After their sister Dinah is raped by the prince of Shehem, the brothers murder and pillage the entire town. While the rape of Dinah is indeed horrific, it does not justify the act of collective punishment her brothers pursue.

Jacob's Reactions

When Jacob learns of Simon and Levi's action, he bemoans: "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perrizites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed" (Genesis 34:30).

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In Parashat Vayehi, Jacob, on his deathbed, gathers his sons around him to hear his last words. When he reflects again on Simon and Levi, he admonishes them: "Simon and Levi, the brothers---weapons of outrage their trade. […]For in their fury they slaughtered men, at their pleasure they tore down ramparts.Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their wrath so remorseless!"(Genesis 49:5-7)

Jacob's initial response to this injustice is personal. His concern with the deeds of Simon and Levi is that there will be repercussions for him and his community. Only later does he express anger that they have acted wrongly by killing innocent people.

Two Models

Just as Jacob's two responses to the same issue are motivated by very different concerns, our activism on social justice issues can also be motivated by different factors. We can take action on these issues because we are personally affected, or we can act because we feel morally compelled. There is often debate in the world of community organizing as to how we should mobilize communities to combat injustice.

On the one hand, engaging people on the personal level on issues where they feel a direct impact, like health care or education, is an effective tactic. Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, championed this approach.

In Rules for Radicals, he argues that strategies that fail to harness self-interest are naïve: "To question the force of self-interest that pervades all areas of political life is to refuse to see man as he is, to see him only as we would like him to be." In order to successfully mobilize communities, we need to speak to the ways the issues affect people personally.

On the other hand, it is imperative that communities stand in solidarity and work alongside those who are directly affected. Moving beyond our self-interest is especially important in the realm of organizing for global justice. Issues like debt relief or the AIDS pandemic feel very distant for most in the Global North. We must develop a moral compass that compels us, even if we are not directly involved, to act.

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Alana Alpert

After receiving rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in June 2014, Alana will serve as the Rabbi/Organizer of Project Micah in Detroit, an exciting collaboration between Congregation T'chiyah and the Harriet Tubman Center. A trained community organizer, educator, and service-learning facilitator, she has worked in a number of Jewish and interfaith social justice organizations. She is passionate about the intersections of spiritual practice and social change.