By Michal David
Sitting on my client’s couch, I am nearly brought to tears as I listen to him share his experience of visiting the Social Security Office. He tells me about sitting in the office for hours, about watching other more “official” looking people pass him in line, and about being treated “like a criminal” by the staff at the office. As a housing case manager at Heartland Alliance, the leading anti-poverty organization in the Midwest, I am often witness to such instances of institutional discrimination. I am painfully aware of the difference in responses that my clients and I receive rom landlords when calling to inquire about an available apartment and of the stigma that my clients feel when they go to seek care at a clinic that is predominantly for HIV/AIDS positive patients. In the face of such everyday injustices, I often find myself feeling overwhelmed by the idea of seriously affecting change.
A recent Torah portion, Vayigash, offers some guidance on continuing to work towards change even while confronting such seemingly insurmountable injustice. In this portion, Judah approaches his brother Joseph, who is at the time the Chief Steward of Egypt, offering himself in the place of their brother Benjamin as a slave to the Egyptian ruler. Upon witnessing his brothers’ loyalty to one another, Joseph reveals his identity to them. Following his reveal, Joseph and his brothers do not attempt to work through their deep-seated problems. Instead, the brothers simply embrace and cry into each other’s arms. Joseph’s only words to the brothers who had only years before sold him into slavery are, “Now, don’t be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here…It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you [to provide refuge from famine].”
Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla explains that while the words spoken by Joseph hold great power, they “cannot heal the wounds of the past for they do not address the underlying injustice of the situation.” Still, Rabbi Kukla says these words work to reunite Joseph and his family and teach us that “even if we are unable to fully meet, to fully fix what’s broken, we can begin to make a difference by stepping forward”.
The Hebrew word for Vayigash means to draw near. According to Rabbi Kukla, these words similarly teach us that “to move in the direction of repairing relations is literally to move towards one another”.
In my day to day interactions with my clients I work to move “towards them” and in turn to develop a greater and more intimate understanding of their stories and the daily challenges they face. I may not be single-handedly changing the structural inequities that my clients face through these interactions, yet I try to remind myself on a daily basis that through each small action I take, I am helping to build the potential towards change. AVODAH provides a forum for young Jews across the country to engage in such change-oriented work and in turn provide a framework for real social transformation to occur.
Michal David is from Sunnyvale, CA, attended Emory University and is a Housing Case Manager at the Heartland Human Care Services.