The Tragedy and the Challenge
The gravest sin for Jews is to forget Whom they represent (*)
There is a high price to pay for living as a Jew. One must be holy in order to be accepted. One is commanded to surpass civilization so as to be average. Our existence is neither desired nor easily tolerated. God has positioned us in history in a most curious way. To be a Jew is either utterly inconvenient or the most exalted merit a person can ever attain. There is no middle road. Our choice is either our undoing or our blessing. We are the most challenged people on earth. We are superfluous, or we are indispensable. It is either extremely tragic or exceptionally joyous to be a Jew. There is no in-between.
We have recently entered an age in which we convince ourselves that we should be ordinary and that holiness is no longer to be our trademark. We are obsessed with the dream to “normalize” ourselves so as to obtain a ticket into the world community. And now that we have “arrived” and gotten our way, there are far too many times when we embarrass ourselves in the eyes of the world and our own people.
Even the religious Jewish community, which has always believed in our uniqueness and the need to live a saintly life, is often compromised by its own followers. Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members sometimes behave in ways that violate the sanctity of Judaism; several of them have actually been imprisoned on charges of financial corruption. To our great astonishment, some were allowed to join the Knesset again, even with the sanction of powerful halachic authorities. We would have hoped that these authorities would have had the moral fiber to stop this and dismiss the possibility out of hand. After all, once a person has violated halachic or ethical standards, they can no longer represent authentic Judaism even if they have paid for their crime. Alas, the reverse has happened.
In addition to so many other aberrations within some sectors of the religious community, including sexual offenses and abuse, Judaism’s integrity has lately been violated in the eyes of many Israelis and in front of the world community.
This is nothing less than a global desecration of God’s name. With it we have compromised our most sacred commodity: being a light unto the nations. We were summoned to be God’s witness in the world, and we have made ourselves trivial.
True, it is only a few Jews who are the perpetrators. But we are all guilty, especially we who call ourselves religious. How do we allow our fellow religionists to get away with this? What is missing in our Jewish religious education? Sometimes it is the secular Jews who seem to live by higher moral standards than some of the religious. Did they get the message about what it means to be a real Jew, and we didn’t?
We forgot to fight for righteousness, for justice, for holiness in the name of the Torah; and now we must fight against sacrilege, against injustice, and against evil.
This is a time when our leaders, rabbis and heads of yeshivot are challenged as never before. They will have to instill in the hearts of their students and followers one overwhelming and all-encompassing mission: to clear God’s name, fortify the great ethical message of Judaism, and inspire Jews to make a lifelong commitment to the sanctification of His name. We must convince them and ourselves to live a life of holiness in which even the trivial becomes sanctified. This is now the most important task of every yeshiva and Jewish day school.
If we do not fulfill this duty, our teaching Judaism becomes a farce.
We have to learn that it is an embarrassment to perpetrate even the lowest level of corruption while living in the presence of God.
Without this awareness, we can no longer call ourselves Jews, the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. We have no right to serve God, pray, or study Torah when real Judaism is no longer our trademark; our passion for integrity no longer our ultimate goal.
We Jews are messengers, but we have forgotten the message.
It is our obligation to rediscover it and advance it into eternity. We should not betray our pledge. Our task is to be more than human, more than good, and more than pious. Our task is to surpass all these and once again become God’s stake in the future.
Let us go to our homes, families, schools, businesses, and yeshivot, and let us look for every opportunity to sanctify God’s name, apply the highest standards of Judaism, and radiate holiness. On land, at sea, and in the air, we should protest the corruption among members of religious parties, object to so many other indiscretions, and convince our people that we have not forgotten our holy mission.
We must win this war; otherwise we lose our right to call ourselves Jews, and instead become redundant.
“The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents.”
(*) A paraphrase of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents.” The Earth Is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1995 edition) p. 109.
This essay was inspired by the writings of Rabbi Heschel.
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