William Hamilton
William Hamilton

‘Beauty grows at the greatest distance from the center of the ego’

“Israel has faced three challenges in her history” Knesset member Rachel Azaria shared at the Ruderman Foundation’s Town Hall this past Wednesday night. “The original challenge was demographic.  Later it was military.  Today it is over legitimacy.”  How can we stay fresh and bring our best to today’s challenge?

An answer lies at the heart of this week’s portion of Torah.  Entering the Torah’s central book, we learn about daily deeds designed to keep God close. “Your offering shall be brought from domesticated animals (b’heima), cattle (bakar) and flocks (tzon) (Lev. 1:2).  Each of these offering-sources symbolizes a deeper drive which we are called to surmount.

The animal known as b’heima signifies instinct – the hungers, urges and primal emotions that are at the core of survival.  Yet we are called to do more with our lives than just survive.  The cattle identified as bakar symbolizes discernment.  Its Hebrew root also means to critically visit the ideas, people, and experiences we meet in life.  Superficial soundbites and simplistic claims deserve deeper consideration.  And the flocks called tzon indicate the herd mentality so pervasive in today’s groupthink political culture.  Since Abraham founded our faith, we have known the dignity that comes from standing apart from the herd.

Transcending each of these drives is essential to living morally handsome lives.  We draw nearer to God – the aim of an offering – when we do.  But they also help us weather Zionism’s current challenge.  There is more in our destiny than survival (b’heima).  Israel’s vocation is to change the condition of the Jewish People in ways that help us fulfill our God-given task to be a blessing to humankind.  Also, conviction that is considered (bakar) does not weaken commitment, it strengthens it.  Finally, being faithful to the unpopular isn’t easy but it is important.  Even more than being ‘on the right side of history’, our responsibility is to be ‘on the right side of our story.’

Daily deeds rescue us from the unmoored life.  They steady us.  They enable us to live significantly in the world as Jews. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “It is the deed that carries us away, that transports the soul, proving to us that the greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the center of the ego.”

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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