Many holy books lay open before me. My old friends, we have missed each other. The ancient teachings held me spellbound me as the words seemed to lift from the pages and enwrap me like a cyclone pulling me into the vortex of their depths offering wisdom and insight to stir my soul. But being a writer who has put down her pen for too long — since my mother took ill — nothing I read was able to inspire the first few words to begin this article. Like my mother, I too seemed to be half-paralyzed, at least scripturally.
I plucked myself from the depths, put my books aside momentarily and checked in on my mother to see how she was enjoying the movie I had rented for her. Suddenly, the title of the film unfurled the path that my words would follow. It was titled “Born Yesterday.” In it a loud-mouthed ill-bred gangster hires a journalist to serve as a tutor for his ditzy girlfriend to “smarten her up,” to help her better fit into the upper echelons he himself seeks to enter only to later corrupt. But the ironic twist of the tale is she turns out to be quite the student whose mind is opened up and ethics finely tweaked to see the ugly truth about herself, her boyfriend and the immoral life she is living. She tosses out the old and starts her life anew as if she was just born yesterday.
I thank Hollywood for the title, but I thank the Torah for the wisdom. For contrary to the condescending implications that comes with the phrase “born yesterday,” in Judaism, it’s a blessing and an obligation to be born yesterday–and today and tomorrow and the day after that. When a Jew is living as a proper Jew, he aims to be reborn every day as a better version of himself and as a better servant of God. OUCH! The word servant bothered you. I felt it. You wanted to stop reading then and there. But be certain that in this life YOU WILL SERVE, and if it won’t be God by your choice, He will arrange that you serve much harsher taskmasters: enemies, bosses, creditors, unpleasant family members, doctors, the IRS, etc. If you don’t believe the Torah, then maybe you’ll believe Bob Dylan: “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna’ have to serve somebody.”
Our calling to our faith does not end after our fancy bar/bat mitzvahs or after we put down the prayer books on the High Holidays. Our duty is to keep refining ourselves and to up the game in our observance of Judaism. I’m aware most people don’t want to be preached at and at this point will be saying “Thanks, but no thanks– I’m already a good Jew.” And then they will proffer their self-serving and self-created definition of what constitutes being a good Jew which usually involves liking blintzes, fasting on Yom Kippur and feeling bad when Israelis get killed in acts of terror. Sorry, but that is tantamount to a doctor saying he’s a good doctor because he likes hospital cafeteria food, he dispenses band aids and feels bad when patients die. If you want to know what a good Jew looks like, you may want to read the God-given instruction manual.
By every other metric of our lives, such as our health, finances, beauty, etc., we aim to be better than we were last year, last month, even yesterday. It is only when it comes to being Jews that we dare not strive and have no drive to be better. Instead of being keepers of the faith, we are weepers of the faith–always crying how hard it is to keep God’s laws. “I’m a good Jew. I do enough, believe me. Too many rules.”
Sorry again, but if you are not “born yesterday” and every day as a Jew, then you are dying every day as a Jew and you are taking your children and a nation down with you. The rabbis teach that every Jew is a letter in the Torah. We also know that if a single letter is missing or damaged in the Torah, the entire scroll is not kosher and we are prohibited from reading it. What letter are you in the Torah? Bold and strong, faded and broken, or simply gone? Will we have to stop reading because of you? What will happen to our precious Torah and the Jewish people if we are on self-delete? Shabbat candles, kosher, charity, praying…there must be something you CAN do or do better.
“Ah leave me alone, I’m happy,” you say. No, you’re not happy. If you were happy the self-help market and the life-coaching industry wouldn’t be a booming multibillion-dollar industry. We are scrambling in the darkness seeking artificial lighting to help us get through the uncertain night. Sometimes life drags us down so deep, indeed to where it is pitch black, and we’re not even sure we’ll survive to see the morrow. And who is the you that shows up tomorrow anyway? The same you that brought you to the darkness to begin with, or the one who is proficient at the blame game? Perhaps it’s time to examine the root of who you are. Stop using the flattering glowing light of a dimmer when looking your Judaism and your life in the face. Turn up the Torah in your life and you will shine in unimaginable ways and find a source of lasting strength to sustain you and those around you.
Let’s learn from the approaching holiday of Chanukah called the Festival of Lights:
The Jewish people are like a symmetrical wing of the menorah. In order to soar we must “flap” in synchronicity. Just like the menorah’s light must not be hidden for personal convenient use, a Jew must also bring light to the outside world, not by flashing one’s Rolex, but by being a shining example of ethics, honesty, philanthropy, kindness, hospitality, etc. Just as the menorah light is “reborn” every night in a crescendo of illumination, a Jew too must strive every day with the mentality that yesterday wasn’t good enough. Today we must shine brighter. Just like the menorah consumes 36 lights (double chai) by the end of Chanukah—symbolic of the 36 righteous people who sustain the world—a Jew has to constantly know that s/he has been Divinely chosen to be a sustaining light among the nations.
It is no secret that Jews claim a disproportionate amount of Nobel Prizes—in 2017 alone, 22.5% of the winners were Jews even though the total Jewish population comprises less than 0.2% of the world’s population. To us, it is a statistic; to a statistician it is a miracle for “throughout the [entire] 20th century, Jews, more so than any other minority, ethnic or cultural group, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize.”
It is no coincidence of fate. The Jewish people are mandated not to merely see the light, but to BE the light. “The soul of man is God’s candle,” Proverbs teaches. The Torah itself—the ultimate battery pack– is compared to a fire; by keeping its commandments, we become powerful eternal flames, not merely candles in the wind or glow-in-the-dark wands that burn out while the party’s still on.
Be wise. When tomorrow comes, be proud to say, “I was born yesterday!”