Picture this: Moshe comes down the mountain and witnesses a group of Jewish men dancing around a golden calf. He raises his arms to toss the luchos down in anger–
–but then stops. Considers. Walks the rest of the way down. Chats with some of the men and then leaves them to their dancing, while he continues back to his tent to get some rest after his long descent.
Later that night, Hashem visits him.
“Moshe,” Hashem thunders, “I want to destroy them!”
“Who? The Jews?”
“Of course! They committed a cardinal sin! What would you have Me do?”
Moshe sighs. “You’re right. That was pretty bad. But You know what? It was just the eiruv rav. They’re just 8 percent of the people. According to a recent PEW report, a whopping 95% of the other nations are blatant idolaters. Look, we’re not perfect, but we’re still better than everyone else.”
Sounds ridiculous, but we say it all the time. How many times have you read a call for change online or in a newspaper, and then found the following in the comments or letters to the editor section:
“Sure, our divorce rates are rising. But have you looked at the rates in America? I’d say we’re still doing a lot better.”
“Yeah, there’s some abuse. But you make it sound like an epidemic when really it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what I’ve read about in the Post. You should see what goes on in the church.”
“So we’re not perfect in our treatment of women. But we value them a lot more than the popular culture that objectifies them. What more do you want from us?”
Personally? A lot more.
After 120, when we stand before the Heavenly Court in judgment, we’re not going to be asked by Hashem whether or not we were as kind as Rivka Imeinu or as learned as Rebbi. Instead, we’ll be shown a picture of ourselves, not as we are, but as we could have been. We’ll be judged on how closely we match that image, with the main question being, “Did you reach your own potential?” This is what makes the Judgment Day so frightening. We won’t be able to say, “But I was still better than Shlomo or Chaya or Dovid or Leah!” We’ll be compared only to ourselves. We will be the standard of measurement for our own lives.
There are a lot of wonderful things about our community. I love our dedication to mitzvos. I love our many, many chesed organizations. I love our families. I love our schools. I love that if I ever get stuck in an airport at one in the morning all I have to do is reach out to the nearest shul and help will be on the way, no questions asked.
We also have plenty of room to improve. But it’s impossible to advance if we let unproductive comparisons hold us back. As long as we are “better than” there is no drive for growth. Just like we need to ask ourselves if we are living as close to our own fulfilled version as possible, it is important that we ask that of our community as well. How close are we, the Jewish nation, to being the goy kadosh that Hashem asks us to be? When we ask that, the paradigm shifts. Instead of allowing other people model the lowest standard of behavior for us, we begin to model the highest standard for them. Instead of excusing pockets of mediocrity, we honestly examine them so that we can find the sources and correct them.
We are a people that does not dismiss percentages. This is why Hashem could hold us all responsible for the actions of a few. And this is why Moshe did not dismiss or rationalize those actions; rather, he took responsibility and made some tough choices as a leader, doing what needed to be done to help us repent and repair. It’s time we do the same.