William Hamilton

Sustaining ideals

You may have noticed an interesting feature of how tech leaders speak of their lofty aims. They’re not out to make money. Rather they aim to elevate consciousness, to forever transform how we communicate and learn. Matti Friedman wrote this week of how he was first introduced to this phenomenon a few years ago. A reporter sitting next to him asked an innocuous question of the CEO of a new electric car company: How will your investors make money? The CEO indignantly looked down to inform him, “I work for your children.”

This ideal-insistence trend is, of course, not limited to business. It now seems fastened onto every cause and every consequence. Doing such-and-such will fix this system. Failing to adopt this vital new way forward will hasten our collective ruin.

Our people has vast experience keeping ideals aloft particularly when they’re being bombarded or collared by reality. Consider how we handle a challenge as pervasive as loneliness. Companionship is espoused from the dawn of humankind. “It’s not good for a person to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). And yet isolation was a growing problem pre-pandemic and it’s likely to continue to be, long after social-distancing safely recedes. Still, we defiantly persist toward togetherness.

Judaism’s approach to inching ideals forward requires doing deeds. A friend and fellow-learner shared something she recently learned about the word spiritual. It contains the word ritual. This is telling. Habits, enacting ideals with pedestrian, grounded gestures is what preserves and protects their spirit.

Consider the ritual upon entry into a synagogue each morning. We echo an endearing blessing from this week’s portion of Torah: “How goodly are your dwellings, dear Jacob; your sacred settings, precious Israel” (Num. 24:5).

This also applies to the most challenged ideals ever, such as philo-Semitism, the love of our people. This week’s portion of Torah finds the prophet-for-hire, Bilaam, describing our people as “A people who dwells alone” (Num. 23:9). Our destiny is set apart from the nations of the world. Yet our founding purpose is to blessedly influence them. Abraham is instructed “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). The promise that those who bless us will be blessed and those who affront us will be cursed is echoed verbatim by Bilaam (Num. 24:9).

This is why so many details in this week’s portion echo Abraham’s experiences with journeying lads, a donkey, and seeing from afar. It is precisely when we’re most vulnerable that we need to return to our original purpose, our most authentic selves. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elegantly says, “by being what only we are, we contribute to humanity what only we can give.”

We don’t get to decide the feelings of others. Handling our own feelings keeps us busy enough. But no matter how much hatred of our people festers, we still carry a dream. In carrying it, may we find it lifting us.

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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