Obligation & Volunteerism

In social justice work, can we simultaneously reach a broad audience while ensuring participants are there for the right reasons?

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Striking the Right Balance

The question that Micah grappled with remains: how significant is an action if it comes from questionable intentions? Do we really desire the participation of people who attend a rally out of guilt or self interest instead of solidarity? Their presence did, after all, help pressure the government to increase funding for AIDS education or push for Global South debt cancellation!

Ultimately, these two approaches are not separate and irreconcilable poles: we must seek balance. Too much purity of intention will lead to a movement righteous in principle but weak in influence. A base without deep commitment may suffice for a specific short-term campaign, but is not sustainable for long-term movement-building.

The compromise lies in the fluidity of human motivation. While the prophets demand a pure approach to sacrifice from the get-go, Rashi is willing to accept good actions motivated by less than ideal intentions under the assumption that they will evolve.

This idea is supported by the principle of “naaseh v’nishma--we will do and we will understand” (Exodus 24:7).  It is in the act of doing that understanding and commitment can grow. The student who first attended a rally because his friends were going will hopefully develop his own commitment to working for justice by attending, learning, and being part of a passionate communal movement.

We must embrace those who participate so that their commitment may grow, consistently pushing for more, compelling without coercing. We must work towards the vision for which Rav Safra prays:

"May it be Your will, Adonai our God, to establish peace among the celestial family and among the earthly family and among the disciples who occupy themselves with Thy Torah whether for its own sake or for other motives; and may it please You that all who do so for other motives may come to study it for its own sake!" (Brakhot 17a)

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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.