The question, ‘Why the Jews?’ often comes in response to attacks. This week is different. Not for lack of threats and incidents, alas. But because we can also view the question from a different vantage point. This week’s portion of Torah introduces our people to its purpose.
‘Why the Jews’ from God’s perspective? Although ‘land’ and ‘seed’ are core to the covenant, our reason for being is clear. “Families of all nations everywhere shall experience blessings by their contact with you” (Gen. 12:3). We are meant to be blessedly influential.
Influence can be tricky. Those who hate us accuse us of having too much of it. Yet a biblical God who turns from Noah toward Abraham is not turning a back on the rest of the humanity. Our particular approach to generating righteousness, Judaism, has always had a purpose beyond survival. It is to support other peoples and faiths in their pilgrimages toward better versions of themselves.
In the 4,000 years since Abraham, there have been relatively few opportunities to deliver on this vocation. Host societies and neighbors have been uninterested in our offerings. We’re fortunate to live in different times today.
A couple of important new books suggest what and how our messages might take shape. What are they? Journalist Bari Weiss urges us to hold fast to the gifts we’ve bequeathed to human history: beliefs in one God, human dignity, the sanctity of life, and freedom itself. Speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz awakens us to Judaism’s depth by inspiring us to tune our hearts and minds to the divine frequency of life. How are such lessons to be conveyed? Our way was always intended to stand apart from the ways of the majority. Abraham’s identity as ‘a Hebrew’ positions him perpendicular to his surroundings (Gen. 14:13).
People everywhere today are struggling. Aloneness, tribalism, and unhappiness, are too prevalent. We’re grinding our gears in trying to remedy them. Judaism’s responses can shed new light. Meditation that quiet’s the noise can be supplemented by nourishing ‘communities of prayer’. Plenaries championing the ‘dignity of difference’ can be strengthened by accentuating a ‘holy empathy’ that can make strangers into fellow-travelers. And we can face anxieties over ‘not measuring-up’ or ‘missing out’ with a humble gratitude that helps us view ‘givens’ as ‘gifts’.
With the restoration of our ancestral home (Israel) and the resuscitation of our freedom (America), we dare not stray from delivering on our urgently needed errands.