What does it mean to be a Jew? To believe in “The One”? To do God’s will? To observe and celebrate the 10 Commandments? To pass Torah from generation to generation, preserving our ancestors’ wisdom? To set an example that others may follow? To work for Justice, Peace and Tikkun Olam (repair the world)?
At many levels, being Jewish is a privilege. Although many Jews in the past paid a steep price for that privilege, our very survival as a people, as a culture of knowledge and wisdom, proves its worth and value to humankind — especially in light of the plethora of societies and cultures that have perished in the interim. We are privileged to have been given the Torah and Commandments that direct us on the straight path, the path toward Tikkun Olam.
Even so, the ancient writings CLEARLY show that we are, as every other people, stiff-necked and stray from that path at every juncture. God has given us commandments and prophets to remind us of our duties to ourselves, our communities, and our world. Our stories tell of our strengths and of our weaknesses, show us great role models as well as their foibles and faults. What other compilation of a people’s history airs their dirty laundry as openly and liberally as ours? Our Jewish experience, our culture and folkways emphasize education and awareness. Repeating these stories of bygone days encourages T’shuvah (returning to the right path) so that we may be less inclined to repeat the errors from our people’s past in our own lives.
Is this a perfect, all-wise system? Not by a long shot. As Winston Churchill remarked, “[this] is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried…” Nonetheless, we have been the leaders in rule-of-law and protection of individual rights. For example, our writings emphasize that we don’t take advantage of the vulnerable; we do right by the stranger in our midst, the widow, and the orphan. We humans are all children of God, gifted with intelligence and the free will to use it. Our Jewish heritage teaches us that how we use our gifts – intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual – makes a difference in the lives around us, ripples through space and time, positively affecting the world tomorrow and the world to come.
So, what does it mean to be Jewish? To learn about our past, to emulate our role models, and to avoid our ancestors’ errors; to live and work for Justice in the present, to do deeds of loving-kindness; and to have faith that setting a good example moves our future, even if only infinitesimally small steps at a time, toward a just and peaceful world, built with our own hands this time. Hallelujah!
Ahavas Israel Board Member