"The Rabbis taught, 'More than the wealthy person does for the poor, the poor person does for the wealthy' (Vayikra Rabbah 34:8). The simplest reading of this text assumes a quid pro quo theology in which those who give will be rewarded either in this world or in the world to come. The poor person benefits the wealthier person by granting the one who gives tzedakah (material support to the poor) a chance to fulfill a mitzvahand merit a divine reward.

"In a less literal vein, we can read this statement as a description of a certain kind of giving or service relationship. Those who give time or money often describe the 'warm fuzzy feeling' that such actions engender. Some social scientists have even produced research to demonstrate that altruistic people are happier and healthier. It is difficult for volunteers or any but the largest donors to have a profound impact on the life of any individual or community. However, even a single service experience or a single meaningful encounter with communities in need can bestow on the giver a sense of purpose and possibility. The supposed giver often ends up receiving more than he or she gives.

"Developing an ongoing commitment to justice, service, or tzedakah also can give us a sense of ourselves as powerful agents, able to change the world around us. Many of us look around at the problems in the world and feel ready to throw up our hands in defeat. But committing ourselves to ongoing justice work, together with a community of like-minded individuals, can restore hope in the possibility of change and in our own abilities to bring about this change.

"These are lofty ideals. But it is much harder to maintain a sense of passion and purpose when the day-to-day work consists of making dozens of phone calls, collating mailings, and losing political battles. And this is where the real spiritual work begins.

"I believe that Jewish practice offers a framework for transforming our social justice work from something we do for other people to a meaningful spiritual practice for ourselves. This type of spiritual practice begins with the traditional notion of chiyyuv, 'obligation.' In traditional Jewish practice, accepting the notion of chiyyuv means that I pray, observe Shabbat, and give tzedakah because I believe that I am obligated to do so, and not necessarily because I feel like it. Yet the idea of chiyyuv runs counter to the modern ethos of individual choice. In the United States, no one tells me what to believe, where I may live, or whom I may love. While social, economic, or political factors may influence my decisions, and while each choice comes with its own consequences, I am not legally forced into one course of action. In the realm of Judaism, no one can force me to show up at synagogue, to shun cheeseburgers, or to donate to my local Jewish Federation. Outside of the Orthodox community, most Jews who engage with Judaism do so out of a desire for spiritual connection, for community, or for a link to history and tradition.

"The move toward individual choice is, on the whole, a positive development. There is no end to historical and contemporary examples of religion becoming an oppressive and abusive force. But we also lose something when we dispense with the notion of chiyyuv. Absent a sense of obligation, we are likely to do only what we feel like in the moment. If I do not pray regularly, I may not know how to pray in moments when I seek comfort or closeness with the Divine. Observing kashrut forces me to be mindful of what I put into my body. Reciting blessings before eating allows me to experience gratitude every time I eat. Resting from work each Shabbat helps me to balance work with time for family, community, and myself.

"Applying the notion of chiyyuv to service, tzedakah, and social justice helps us to turn these areas of work into a daily practice, rather than allow ourselves to think of this work as optional service, to be done when we are moved to do so."