On Tuesday night, we had a visit from two Urban Mitzvah Corps alumni, Ross M. Levy and Avi Wisnia, who shared stories with us about their time at UMC and how it has impacted the trajectory of their lives. They expressed how important friendships with their fellow UMC participants have been throughout their lives so far, and they gave advice to the participants about how to make the most of the rest of their time here. Perhaps most importantly, they stressed how UMC was a turning point in their lives for how they see the world. They see it as their obligation to continue the work they started at UMC, to continue to inspire the next generation of teenagers to do the same.
This week’s parsha, Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13), teaches us about obligation. The second verse of the parsha tells us, “If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on themselves, they shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips.” This commandment is not surprising. Simply put, it tells us that we have to keep our promises. However, when we look deeper, we see that God tells us that keeping a promise to God is just as important as keeping a promise to ourselves. It puts both kinds of vows or obligations on equal footing. Whether or not we’ve made promises to God this summer, we’ve definitely made promises to ourselves. We’ve set goals for ourselves and our community, and we’ve committed ourselves to the work that needs to be done.
The hebrew words that are used in this parsha are “אסר על נפשו” (isar al nafsho), which literally translated means “a vow/obligation on his soul.” This translation perfectly describes the way UMC 2017 has been affected by one another and by the New Brunswick community this summer. We feel it in our souls, in the part of us that makes connections with other human beings. It is our obligation on our souls, or to our souls, to continue the holy work that we began this summer.
We take this Shabbat to reflect on the past 4 weeks: all that we’ve learned, the friendships we’ve built, the communities we’ve impacted, the personal growth we’ve experienced, and the community we’ve fostered. And perhaps most importantly, we take this Shabbat to figure out how to bring it all home with us. As God commands us in this week’s parsha, we’ve imposed an obligation on ourselves to continue this work. In being a part of UMC and in experiencing the conditions of urban poverty here in New Brunswick, we have committed ourselves, made ourselves obligated, to continue this work. This is our pledge. This is our oath. We must explore and begin to understand what it means to have made this vow to ourselves. How do we stay true to the person we’ve become here? How do we impart the importance of this experience to others? How have we obligated ourselves to this work, and how will we continue to honor that obligation?
In the coming Shabbat, and in the coming days, weeks and months, may we strive to answer these questions to the best of our ability. May we strive to honor the obligations we make to ourselves, to each other and to our world, this summer, and always, as we work to make it a better place.
Ross, Ariel, and Libby
Urban Mitzvah Corps 2017 Program Staff