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Needless to say? Necessary today

On the imperative to state the obvious: that to be a Jew is to strive to generate goodness in this world

Too many of our values today are assumed. If we could retire a particular expression from use, it would be the colloquialism needless to say. David Horowitz’s editorial earlier this week (Thou shalt not murder. Remember?) rightfully challenged the tired phrase it goes without saying. As our cherished values continue to drown in a sea of populism, reductionism, and extremism, there is a pressing need to reclaim and be explicit about what we stand for.

Paraphrasing Leon Wieseltier’s call some years ago to unapologetically tell our story, we can no longer assume our gifts to be givens. For four-thousand years the Jewish people have been called to live a distinct way of holiness. Apartness was to be a source of dignity, never intended to appear elitist, much less a cause for denigration. When the modern political development known as nationalism gained momentum, the Jews – who came into being thanks to the original liberation movement known as the Exodus – embraced their own nationalist liberation movement which they called Zionism. Such a movement was never about subjugating or mistreating anyone else. It was and remains about auto-emancipation and self-reliance. The sensitivity of the Partition plan of 1947 was that it made space for each side to agree to much less than they had dreamed of realizing.

God’s dreams and designs also do not go without saying. One of the core goals of the Exodus, repeated again and again in this week’s Torah portion, is to make God known to the Egyptians. Prior to the first, the fourth and the seventh plagues we are reminded that the purpose of God’s signs and wonders is not merely to free the Children of Israel or to punish Pharaoh, but to make God known (Ex. 7:17, 8:18, 9: 29). What is to be known about God? Not God’s nature or God’s anatomy but God’s will. Lessons from God’s singular intervention in human history, the Exodus, include God’s bias toward hopeful tomorrows, toward siding with the powerless against the powerful, and toward exercising freedom’s responsibilities.

Jewish leadership is not earned at the ballot box. It accumulates by the merit system. Believing in people, expecting great things of people, is one such merit. Indeed, believing that people can change, helping the small-souled to grow in soul by accepting freedom’s responsibilities, is an outcome of inspired leadership.

To be a Jew is to strive to generate goodness in this world. Alas, there are among our People those who have forgotten this lesson. There are also some who have never learned it. May we bring fresh clarity to such core purposes for the sake of a world so hungry for us to live in accord with our higher vocation.

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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