04/18/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

Living Radical: Love the Vulnerable!

One of my sources of inspiration is the great Dr. Paul Farmer, who teaches at Harvard Medical School and works in Boston hospitals for about four months a year and spends the rest of the year healing the sick in Haiti, for which he receives no financial compensation. He is not only a model of service, but also an exemplar of what it means to be committed locally and globally, physically and intellectually, principled and utilitarian. Dr. Farmer and a small group of colleagues have developed an innovative approach that maximizes health care with minimal resources for underserved communities worldwide. Additionally, he has highlighted international health crises such as AIDS and its impact on poor women, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and providing health care in communities at war, in monographs and leading peer-reviewed medical journals. In addition, Dr. Farmer's multidisciplinary approach has won him recognition outside the medical community, as he was also recognized by Foreign Policy as one of the 100 Best Global Thinkers in 2011.

We must be radical in our approach to affect the world. To do so, we often must live with complexity and paradox. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about how adamant Judaism is about holding on to paradox:

I believe that Judaism got it right about the big questions: G-d and mankind, the universal and the particular, the individual and society, education and the life of the mind, justice and compassion, human dignity and equality, being part of yet apart from the wider society in which we are set... (Letter in the Scroll, 220).

Various studies may support the opinion adopted by Rabbi Sacks. Jews comprise less than two percent of American adults (versus more than 78 percent who identify as Christian), and yet there are more than 4,400 Jewish charitable and non-profit organizations, a far higher percentage than among Christians (approximately 84,700 organizations). While it is impossible to claim a one-to-one comparison, the sheer proportional difference is very significant. In addition, a University of Chicago survey published in 2005 indicated that more than 14 percent of physicians were Jewish, more than seven times their proportion of the general population. Finally, while the legal profession has a checkered reputation, it cannot be denied that many Jews serve as underpaid, overworked Legal Aid attorneys for those who cannot afford but desperately need legal assistance; on the other end of the legal world, there are three Jewish justices on the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan) who comprise three-fourths of the so-called "liberal" faction that regularly upholds the interests of minority and the low income populations.

Judaism stresses again and again that we must show more attention to the powerless than the powerful, to the vulnerable than the privileged. Rabbi Sacks explains the historical moral corruption that promoted unlimited power for the few while not valuing the individual:

Judaism is an ongoing moral revolution that began by challenging the great empires of the ancient world. Technologically supreme though they were, they failed the human test. The ziggurats and temples of the ancient world built by a social order that worshiped the few and enslaved the many. They were neither free nor equal. For Judaism, then and now, the criterion of the good society is not wealth, power or prowess but the simple question: does it respect the individual as image of God? (Letter in the Scroll, 98)

Historians have long pondered this paradox. The ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for millennia, their pyramids and other structures are imposing and enduring, and the workmanship apparent on surviving artifacts is extraordinary. Yet, we do not speak ancient Egyptian and do not write with hieroglyphs, we do not follow their mysterious polytheistic religion, we transport goods by wheel rather than by sleds, and we do not revere our leaders as gods incarnate or expend a high portion of our gross domestic product on building tombs for our deceased leaders. On the other hand, the ancient Hebrews (who barely merit a line in all of Egyptian sources) have given much of the world its monotheism and core beliefs, including the dignity of all people and the need to help others. We must continually remind ourselves that military might and power is not of paramount value and will not provide a lasting and honorable legacy.

We live in a lonely world where it is easy to feel isolated. The political commentator William Safire comes to a powerful conclusion at the end of his teaching on the Book of Job. He explains that the book has no easy answers, yet it remains "the greatest form of solace and source of strength," because its message is that "No matter how solitary the confinement, the individual human being is not alone in the universe."

Achieving this balance requires reverence for the complexity of our world. Susan Neiman, explains:

The Enlightenment denied piety to make room for reverence. If piety is a matter of fear and trembling, reverence is a matter of awe and wonder. There is only book-length study in English in the concept of reverence, and its author the philosopher Paul Woodruff, suggests one reason why. Reverence itself is virtually ineffable. It's what gives rise to the feeling expressed by Wittgenstein: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Reverence is what you feel when you are overpowered, struck dumb by the realization that some things are beyond human grasp. Why should human language be able to contain it? ...Whatever else you believe about the world, only one thing is crucial: It wasn't you who made it. This points to one difference between reverence and respect: Respect is something you should feel for yourself along with others; reverence is the feeling you have for something none of us will ever reach (Moral Clarity 241 and 243).

We must be cognizant of the fact that we do not understand, nor will we ever, the full ecosystem that we are engaged with and connected to. We all have major gaps in our knowledge. The awareness of this knowledge deficiency should lead to a humility that empowers us to engage, while reminding us of our limitations. Let us not be discouraged that our knowledge is finite; instead, we should be excited and enthusiastic that in our pursuit of knowledge we utilize learning from all people and situations. We are all lacking and it is in our lack that we find human solidarity. If we revere G-d and if we revere the spirit of G-d placed in each human being, we are struck with awe and love.

Let us love the vulnerable. Let us love our own vulnerabilities. Our healing is bound up with one another. Let us hear the cries and ascend with the tears to the heavens.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."