Listen! It’s the question that created the Jews: passive or active?
What is your answer to the first question of Jewish history? It’s important, because all of a sudden today, we’re all being asked, with fresh urgency, for an answer.
It’s essentially how we respond when almost everything we know and take for granted changes. The answer that started our story was to embrace the new circumstances, and turn them in to momentous opportunity.
We’ve repeated this pattern again and again and today, with all of our lives shaken up by the pandemic, it calls to us.
A journalist was astounded a few days ago when I said the organisation I work for just launched a campaign to construct a new and visionary educational centre to inspire increased Jewish engagement for young people in London.
Aren’t I worried that now, mid-pandemic, is the wrong time to be launching plans on new projects? “To the contrary,” I said. “The quintessentially Jewish response to crisis is to dream, to plan, to build and to invest in a ensuring a vibrant future.”
It all started with Avraham, as stated in the weekly Torah portion. He was told to leave behind all he knew, “lech lecha,” to build a new life, a new faith and a new people. He embraced the call and each and every ensuing challenge and quite literally ran with it, dedicating his life with every ounce of energy and creativity to fulfil his vision.
We often forget that Avraham’s story comes on the heels of another: the account of perhaps one of the most disappointing and anti-climactic figures in world literature.
Noach saves humanity, and all the rest of the species that crowded into his ark. He gets welcomed to a brave new world with the rainbow, a symbol of great hope. But instead of embracing his new reality, and all the opportunities it offers, he plants a vineyard and gets drunk: the ultimate escapism.
This was Noach through and through. Not the inspiring dynamic figure of Our patriarch Avraham, but the far more passive and hesitant figure who, upon seeing the ground totally dry, still needed to be told by God: “Go out of the ark.” Avraham by contrast, was the ultimate proactive figure: like most of us, he would have already been emptying the overhead cabins while the last of the water was drying, heading for the ark’s exit, wheel-on case in his hand.
Avraham was human civilisations first recorded activist. He proactively set about to build a new human culture in a fast-changing world. Unlike the passivity of Noach, Avraham did not wait for heavenly directives. His activism was the direct result of his own intellectual insights. They spurred him into action. He and pulls out all the stops, this becoming the father of the Jewish people, as well as monotheism as a whole. And his example has led us ever since.
It led us at the times of our momentous devastations, like when the Temples were destroyed and, contrary to those who thought Judaism would die, we found a way to make it thrive in new circumstances. It even led many of the Holocaust survivors I have spoken to, who regrouped and rebuilt after the ultimate tragedy which burned our way of life and our people.
To me, writing from lockdown in London, and as friends in Israel are just emerging from lockdown, it’s poignant to be reading the stories of Noach and Avraham. It feels like, in these challenging times, in a sense we’re all in our own little arks, not sheltering from water but rather locking down in the hope that the virulence of the coronavirus can be combatted.
How will we emerge from all of this? Like Noach, who despite hearing the call to responsibility has no capacity to do anything more than that which he is pushed and cajoled into doing? He initially expresses gratitude for his survival but immediately reverts to passivity and escapism — who allowed his life to be defined by the tragedy he lived through and not the rebuilding opportunity that followed? Or like Avraham, who’s tireless determination and positivity made him the father of so many?
When I responded to the journalist that, yes, even at this time — or especially at this time — it’s right to push ahead with bold plans to build towards an exciting and vibrant Jewish future, I felt that the idea of facing adversity head on seems like a red rag to the bullish nature of our people in such circumstances : the right Jewish response is to come back fighting. Noach took humanity into the ark, but it’s only Avraham who shows us what our out-of-the-ark-mindset should be.
One of the most important phrases in Judaism is shema Israel, which translates as “Hear O Israel.” We’re always urging ourselves to listen, to tune in to the reality around us. I’m convinced that if we listen to the question being asked by our times, and the answer being suggested by our history, we will emerge from today’s crisis stronger than ever.