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Penny Jones Square: Repairing the World: A Reflection on Limmud's Festival of Jewish Learning-Sessions with Benji Aziza, David Greaves, Avi Dolgin and Rabbi Sid Shwarz

by Penny Jones Square, March 22, 2015



Repairing the World: A Reflection on Limmud Winnipeg’s 2015 Festival of Jewish Learning







We live by the conviction that acts of goodness reflect the hidden light of His holiness. . . . It is within our power to mirror His unending love in deeds of kindness, like brooks that hold the sky.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel









In reflecting on my experience of this year’s celebration of Jewish learning, I was struck by the reiteration of the theme of tikkun olam—repairing the world—as it was expressed in a number of the sessions I attended. Devotion to social justice, to healing the world, is the heart of Judaism, born of the covenantal command to be “a holy people,” “a light unto the nations.” In assuming this task to advance “the drama of redemption” for humanity, to use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, by being an example of righteousness, the Jews have taken on a thankless job. The all-too-human reluctance to strive for perfection, and the attendant resentment of those who do, has made the Jews, again to quote Heschel, “the most challenged people under the sun.” As he puts it, the Jews’ “existence is either superfluous or indispensable to the world; it is either tragic or holy to be a Jew.” Benji Aziza’s moving description of his service as a medic treating wounded Syrians, “Not your Average Rosh Hashanah: My Experience Treating Syrian Refugees at the IDF Field Hospital,” David Greaves’ emotional account of his volunteer service with children undergoing daily rocket attacks in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, “Stepping out of the Box and into the Bomb Shelter,” Avi Dolgin’s channeling the reluctant and stubborn prophet Jonah to warn each of us of the need to repair our souls and the world, “Yonah ben Amitai & Co.,” and Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s explanation of how the defining values and ideals of Judaism drive the Jewish commitment to social justice, which in turn can revitalize the Jewish community, “Can Social Justice Save the Jewish Soul?,” all speak to the indispensability of the Jews. Each of these speakers has played his part in redeeming the world, in extending the reach of righteousness and justice in the world by acts of goodness and compassion.








Before going into the story of his service at a secret field hospital where the Israeli army was treating wounded Syrians fleeing the civil war, Benji Aziza showed a short film, Close Up: Paramedic on the Syrian Border, about Noga, a young female paramedic. Noga summarized her service simply as the fulfillment of her oath: “I will always be my brother’s keeper,” adding, “And that brother is everyone.” Her humility was as remarkable as her understated courage: “I really don’t feel special because I have this role because if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else. It really could be anyone. I really don’t know why you are making a movie about me.” Though extraordinary, to Noga, her dedication to a universal service ethic is as natural as it is ordinary.




In answer to why the Israeli army was treating Syrians (historic enemies of Israel), Benji credited the long history of Israel’s humanitarian aid, a natural outpouring of Judaism’s commitment to social justice. And as to why he was there, Benji recited the complete oath he

took as a soldier in the Medical Corps of the IDF, an oath which is itself an assertion of the commandment to do good:



I swear to bring healing and balm to body and soul,

To maintain discretion, loyalty, and honor,

And to consider our actions with intelligence, resourcefulness, and love.

I will always be my brother’s keeper

Whether in battle, or on a stretcher, or at their bedside.

I swear that my heart will be forever engraved

With the highest Commandment of sacrifice—

To never leave the wounded in the field.

I swear!



One patient in particular affected Benji: a fifteen year old girl with a severe leg injury. Just after arriving at the field hospital, while she was telling her story through a Druze interpreter, a siren went off, and Benji had seconds to get her and eleven other patients into the bomb shelter meters away. He discovered then the girl’s other leg had been blown off; she had to be carried to the shelter. When he noticed how calm the Syrians were in the shelter, he asked them how they could be like this when he himself was anxious; they answered, “In Syria there is no bomb shelter.” That was the moment Benji realized how “insanely important” the service was that he, with the IDF Medical Corps, was providing. The twelve Syrians were eventually sent back into Syria; as the girl got on the ambulance, she waved to Benji, and this act continues to “haunt” Benji. His vow to “always be his brother’s keeper,” even when that brother is his enemy, explains this: it is an expression of that covenantal compassion so deeply engrained in the Jewish consciousness, of that call to repair a broken world.






David Greaves also responded to the ethical summons inherent in Judaism. David told about an experience on a family trip to Israel during Operation Protective Edge that completely changed his life. While travelling to Tel Aviv with his family, a siren sounded; every car screeched to a halt as people ran from their cars to huddle together while the Iron Dome intercepted the rocket. The persisting image of the horror on his children’s faces as well as the persisting question—“How have the children of Israel dealt with fourteen years of ongoing rocket attacks?”—caused him to step out of the safe, comfortable box of his family and community and return to Israel alone to volunteer for Lev Echad, One Heart, an organization that exists only in times of crisis. David, with volunteers 25 to 30 years younger than himself, lived in the community of Kiryat Milakhi, in the Red Zone, 30 kilometers from Gaza, offering friendship and support to children undergoing constant rocket attacks. The relationships he built with the children “will never be forgotten”; “their smiles wiped away the image of horror” he had been carrying “more times than he can remember.” David received as much as he gave. As Heschel has said, “We must render kindness to acquire goodness; we must do the good to attain the holy” in this “task of redemption,” of repairing the world.





Avi Dolgin’s one-man theatrical re-enactment of the story of Jonah also conveyed the message of tikkun olam, this time through a comic lens. As the reluctant prophet Jonah,

stubbornly defying the divine command to go to Nineveh and warn the people to reform before it is too late, Avi sat sprawled on a chair with his back to the audience, complaining about his job as Divinity Consultant, about the lack of “clear communication” from the boss and the failure of people to pay attention—the usual complaint of the prophet crying in the wilderness, his voice unheard or unheeded. This modern day Jonah told how he relentlessly refused his mission, trying to escape to Tarshish (“like going to Winnipeg in March”), being tossed overboard, and spending three days in the belly of a fish, screaming, “What do you want from me? How can I turn it around? One person can’t turn evil around and make a difference.” But Jonah ultimately relented and accepted his call to repair the world, drawing inspiration from Malala and Elijah Harper: “If them, why not me?” And adding to the audience, “And if me, why not you?” But once Jonah had fulfilled his prophetic mandate by proclaiming against injustice (a new stadium rather than a solution to poverty among other things), once Nineveh was saved, inequality redressed, and God’s decree reversed by the groundswell of teshuvah that arose among the people, Jonah was only annoyed by God’s mocking his belief in “logical consequences,” “cause and effect,” as it “belittled his sense of justice.” Nevertheless, following another call from God, this time on his cell phone, and this time to warn Winnipeg of imminent destruction (a flood to rival the one in the 50’s), Jonah sprang to action: “I’m on it. Count on me, boss.” Jonah then commanded the audience: “Walk out different. You can’t carry on without changing. You each have a mission, and you have strayed from it. I call on you to commit yourselves now. You must change what you do now because you only have 40 days.” In this entertaining way, Avi presented a powerful lesson in teshuvah and challenged each of us to be the best person we can be because by doing so we can not only change the world for the better, we can change God’s mind and advance the “task of redemption.”





In Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s presentation, he explained how Jewish learning and values can be used to inspire young Jews, especially in the critical identity formation years of ages 14 to 21 when they are activated by the desire to change the world. Their commitment to social justice can be a means of returning them to Judaism by teaching them that the motivation to repair the world derives from the covenantal command to be holy in order to invest righteousness and justice in the world. The pre-existing passion for social justice, which Rabbi Schwarz suggested seems to be encoded in the young Jew’s DNA, can be fostered by their understanding this thirst for justice and holiness is the essence of Judaism. The young Jew who is concerned about how he or she can make a difference does not necessarily care about his or her Jewish identity. However, there is a connection: the young Jew can be taught that Jewish learning is a tool with which to act out this passion to change the world, that Jewish wisdom and values can help them in the task of tikkun olam.




Rabbi Schwarz also gave a brilliant summary of his theory of Jewish history as the interplay between the polarities of the impulse of Exodus (the political/ethnic dimension that is defensive and protective) and that of Sinai (the spiritual/religious dimension that is altruistic and engaged with the world). He discussed how both impulses are necessary to a holistic Jewish identity, how the political consciousness of Jewish identity (member of the tribe), motivated by

survival, must be integrated with a spiritual consciousness of Jewish identity (member of the covenant), motivated by a moral calling. He concluded by referring to Elie Wiesel who said that although his “first response is to Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises,” he must also respond to others’ “injustice and suffering” which cry out for his attention. “As one who has emerged from the kingdom of night,” Wiesel understands well the need for both impulses identified by Rabbi Schwarz as is clear in his conclusion to his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech: “Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”




In this we hear a reiteration of Hillel: “if I am only for myself, what am I?” The example of Benji Aziza, David Greaves, Avi Dolgin, and Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who gave such inspiring presentations at this year’s Limmud Winnipeg, confirm Emil Fackenheim’s assertion that, “whether or not the world today realizes it, it cannot do without Jews—the accidental remnant that, heir to the holy ones, is itself bidden to be holy.”


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