Growing up, I had a strong sense of my people and my culture, my heart was Jewish, my soul was Jewish, yet I had little understanding or interest in the religious element. There were times when I suffered with the inferiority complex that so many of us who are different often do, constantly vacillating between pride and shame. I would squirm in my seat when my teacher, unable to pronounce my last name would call it out on the first day of school, never knowing when I would have to endure the laughter and the stares of the non Jewish kids. I did my best to fit in, to be ‘All American’, apologizing for my ethnicity while doing everything in my power to tone down my ‘Jewishness’. I questioned why in a modern world we would follow religious rules that seemed archaic. I believed wholeheartedly in what I thought were the tenets of Judaism, be a moral person, do Mitzvot, stand up against anti-Semitism and commit to making the world a better place. While those are all important, I now realize the fallacy of my thinking, I had it all wrong.
Today I recognize that being Jewish isn’t a choice we make, it’s not a light switch that we can turn off and on, it’s the essence of our very being. Judaism is not always about personal happiness and doing as we please, sometimes we must suffer through difficult circumstances in order to evolve and get closer to God. Being a Jew comes with great responsibility, our Torah requires us to look beyond ourselves and consider the well-being of others. Judaism requires routine and discipline, fighting our animal soul when it gets out of balance and making a consistent effort to evolve, striving to align ourselves with our Godly soul, hopefully elevating to a higher spiritual plane. It’s about taking contrary action, and not feeding our own selfish wants and needs, in spite of our feelings. Judaism, and I mean Torah is about being noble and altruistic, it’s our guidebook for everyday living. By studying and making an effort to follow it, that’s how we serve God and our people, they are one in the same.
When I first came to Israel in July of 2016, I was going through a particularly difficult time and searching for purpose. I was lost and a bit confused, being thrown into a religious community that I couldn’t quite comprehend. Messaging is important and Torah wasn’t delivered in a way that made sense, it wasn’t palatable to me. Yet today, my perspective has changed, I’m coming to to terms with our practice, it’s starting to percolate.
I now realize why our small tribe of people, beginning with our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah have carried on despite the misfortune and destruction that has wreaked havoc on our people. I understand now why the Romans who destroyed our Temple, the Spaniards who expelled us during the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis who murdered 6 million of us in the Holocaust and all of the other atrocities could not break us or lead us into extinction. I often ask myself two questions, Have we survived solely because tragedy and persecution has made us strong? Or, Is it our Torah that keeps us together, giving us the strength to continue despite our calamitous history? I believe it’s the latter.
The odds have always been stacked against us, we have been betrayed, persecuted, scapegoated and expelled from country after country. We have been hated more than any other nation on the planet, yet we have persevered despite the most heinous of circumstances and countless attempts to wipe us us off the face of the earth. We have refused to give up our beliefs and to fully assimilate and for that we have paid a heavy price. For thousands of years, despite this systematic and consistent persecution, we held on to our Torah beliefs and we have not perished. It’s for these reasons why we must pass Jewish learning, prayer and practice down to our children and to future generations.
Before 1948 and the founding of the Jewish State of Israel, it had been over 3000 years since we had a permanent home, the only true consistency has been our Torah. It’s the only thing that has and will ever truly guarantee the survival of the Jewish people.