It’s human nature to think about yourself, but it’s also important to take a moment now and then to contemplate the bigger picture and ask, am I a good Jew? Of course, the typical refrain from our hateful enemies is “that a good Jew is a dead Jew!” But, thanks to G-d’s blessing and mercy, we’re not a dead people, quite the opposite, after 3,000 years, “Am Yisrael Chai”—the nation of Israel does live!
Today, after Shabbat services, at the Kiddush, one man told a story about how he went to the dentist this week. By the way, he said, “She’s a Russian Jewish dentist.” And he continues, “And she tells me, but I’m not a good Jew.” I asked jokingly, “But is she a good dentist?” Ah, he affirms, that she is and shows me his teeth in a big wide-mouthed smile. He then asks sort of sarcastically, “What’s a good Jew anyway?” The older lady next to my wife, says about herself, “I’m not a good Jew either.” To which the man responds, “You’re here [in shul on Shabbat], so you’re a good Jew!”
I thought to myself that answer is nice for some bantering around the kugel, but seriously, coming for a few minutes to synagogue once a week on Shabbat and heading downstair to the Kiddish, that really doesn’t make one a “good Jew.” So, I start asking myself: What happened to genuine faith in G-d, belief in the holy Torah, our duty to abide by the 613 commandments, and generally doing right in this world by our fellow man and before G-d Almighty? Maybe I’m being too literal here but being a “good Jew” has got to mean something important. We are keeping alive the tradition of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, spanning back thousands of years to our Forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to G-d delivering us from Egyptian servitude, and His giving to us the Torah on Mount Sinai, and to His bringing us to Israel, the Land of Milk and Honey, and keeping us from being wiped away by one great empire after another. Being a Jew means being part of an important and yes, “chosen” for a special mission of being a “light unto the nations” and that means action on our part: thinking, saying, and doing what’s right all the time! At least, that’s the goal!
As it happens, this is also my bar mitzvah Shabbat, and I still remember my father’s words those many years ago, when he spoke to me and said:
When you observe all the mitzvot, study torah, sanctify Shabbos, Kashrut, and especially tzedokah (charity) and helping your fellow man, then you can surely say like in the prayer of Adon Olam that no matter what happens ‘I am not afraid for Hashem is with me’ (אֲדֹנָי לִי וְלֹא אִירָא).
Certainly, in the holy Shema Yisrael too, we read multiple times every day the reward that G-d has in store for us if we are “good Jews,” and of course, G-d forbid, the opposite, the bad that awaits us if we forsake Him and the life that He has commanded of us.
Today, for the Shabbat speech, Rabbi Dovid Baars told a story about a man complaining to another how everything in his life was absolutely terrible. Not only terrible, but the worst! The other man says to him, “It can’t be that bad.” The man responds, that really is. He bemoans, “I lost my business, my home, and my wife and children have left me.” The other man says, “That’s bad, but it can be worse.” The man says, “It is worse; I am ill, bankrupt, and have no one in my life.” The other man nods, but says, “It can still always be worse.” Now the first man is fuming and says, “How can it be worse?” The second man responds, “It could be me!”
Aside from the humor in it, the lesson is of course that we all have our challenges and even our suffering in life (may Hashem have mercy on us), and yes, it can always be worse, so we need to be mindful of everything that we do have, and grateful for good things and the opportunity to learn and grow in this world, even when it can be very hard, indeed. But we also need to keep in mind, that G-d created us, and put us in this world for a reason. We are Jews, and we do need to be good Jews at that. While “showing up” is perhaps a good start, it’s certainly not enough. We are tested daily to do what’s right, even when it’s not convenient, easy, enjoyable, or popular. What is a Jew? We need to really ask ourselves that question. It’s not trivial and neither should the answer be. Our lives in this world and the next are depending on how we live up to the high bar that is set for us each and every day of our lives that Hashem mercifully grants to us. So let us use the time on this earth wisely and so we can answer for ourselves, and with our children, with true meaning and purpose “What is a good Jew?”