By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
There is a peculiar line in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tavo: In describing the repercussions for breaking faith with God, Moses lists a number of curses, one of which reads, “You shall grope at noon as a blind person gropes in the dark … ” The Talmud (Tractate Megillah 24b) asks the question: Why does the Torah specify that the blind person is struggling in the dark? Isn’t she or he equally challenged, both in daylight and darkness?
Our rabbis answer their own question with the conclusion of the verse, several phrases later: “ … v’ein moshi’a — no one will be there to give help.” In daylight, someone without sight may hope that others will recognize his need and offer a hand; in darkness there is “no one there to give help” (Deuteronomy 28:29).
As a community in these troubled times, we cannot underestimate the importance of extending a hand, to offer a kindness, even an encouraging word over Zoom or by telephone. More people are struggling in more ways — so when the Jewish Federation leadership reached out to the Board of Rabbis with an offer of partnership through the Rabbis’ Emergency Relief Fund, as a rabbi I felt empowered and uplifted by this extension of a helping hand.
The idea, in its simplicity, was nonetheless innovative: Rabbis are offering counseling, offering discretionary fund support in the form of tzedakah, and offering spiritual and material care “on the front lines” to community members in need. Rabbis could help deliver much-needed direct aid from the Jewish Federation’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund by putting funds into rabbinic tzedakah and discretionary accounts.
As a rabbi, I view all donations to my tzedakah fund as a sacred trust: People or institutions are asking me to help them by being an agent for the good they wish to do in our community and in our world. When someone entrusts me with their tzedakah, I take that quite seriously, and I ask myself how I can best fulfill their intentions. This is a partnership that answers the question that plagued Moses in his worst fears for the future of the Jewish people — that “no one would be there to help.”
The Jewish Federation, time and again, and especially in this crisis, proved that worry unfounded. Our community has offered and continues to extend a helping, guiding, supporting and encouraging hand. Could we do more? Must we do more? Of course, but the very acknowledgment that there is more work to be done speaks to our motivation to push ourselves to help more than we already have.
The fact that our community lay leadership enlisted dozens of local rabbis in this effort speaks both to the critical and widespread nature of our collective pain and to the potential (now and into the future) for this partnership to deepen.
Countless people are hurting, in countless ways. A little glimmer of light in the darkness, a single helping hand, even the knowledge that that helping hand is here for us should we ever need it — this should imbue us with pride and reassurance in the face of all our obstacles. This cooperative effort provided the daylight needed, for those who are in need, to know that there is help out there.
I pray that, together, our Jewish Federation and our community clergy and other leaders continue to be that extended hand, that glimmer of hope for all who need. Indeed, that hand, that light is the only way we will navigate the long and winding path out of our current crisis — leaning on each other when we must, supporting each other when we can.
On behalf of our community’s clergy leadership, todah, thank you, to our Jewish Federation, for partnering and entrusting us with this sacred, critical role.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the rabbi at Adath Israel on the Main Line and is the co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.