Wisdom on a T-Shirt

I saw the wisest thing I have read for a long time on a t-shirt today. The slogan said, “Life is not finding yourself; it is creating yourself.”

I thought about adopting it as my slogan – or, one of them, at least.

However, like many others, I was brought up on a set of Twentieth Century assumptions about life, including recognising cultural influences and collective memory, the value of uncovering our individuality and the importance of our childhood experiences in framing who we are, all of which provide the impetus for self-discovery and developing self-esteem. It is hard to dismiss the concept of “finding oneself” completely.  On consideration, I am going to adapt the slogan:

“Life is not only about finding yourself; it is also about creating yourself.”

I began to think about the idea not only in relationship to myself as an individual but also regarding my home and my people, the State and the People of Israel.

The recent “Jewish State Law” represents an attempt for the State to define itself. The government  decided to concretize in law the vision of the Nineteenth Century Zionists in Europe who had the vision to imagine a Jewish homeland, a safe-haven for Jews, a nation-state that would give expression to Jewish values and Jewish culture. These were all worthy goals – they still are. I came to this country out of the same sentiments.

However, with all that is good about these values, they clearly do not encompass all that the State of Israel needs to be. They were framed in a time when the Jewish people had to contend with powerlessness and minority-status in places where they were not really welcome. Zionism was a lofty goal but did not provide a single, unambiguous answer as to the way that the State ought to conduct itself – particularly with regards to “the stranger who is within our gates” – minorities living under our domination. It seems to me that in passing the law, the politicians were satisfied with “finding” what Israel is but less interested in “creating” what it might be.

In order to create ourselves, we probably need to first find ourselves. A people needs to know its history and value its roots and its heritage. Then, we need to assess and re-think that history in light of the current reality and our aspirations for the future. Having “found” ourselves, we have to undertake to “create” ourselves in line with our ideals. As those wiser than myself have said, we need to learn from the past but not live in the past.

Next week, the Elijah Interfaith Summer School begins. It will be dealing with the subject “Memory in the Religious Life” and it will examine how six different religious traditions integrate “memory” into a vision for the future. Other religious traditions struggle, as we do, with the burden and pain of the past and strive to integrate memory into hope for the future.

It may surprise many Jewish people, who believe in the importance of remembering our past as a religious obligation, to realise that Judaism does not think of “remembering” as an act of relating to the past but sees it as a way of moving forward. When we talk of building a “Jewish” state, it behooves us to look to the Prophets who urged us to use our knowledge of the past to create a better future. As individuals we have to reflect on and constantly evaluate our actions, so that we can constantly do better. As a people, we have a mission to heal the world, knowing what has happened in order to learn new ways of facing our challenges and making a positive difference. Indeed, it seems to me that Jews are not told to “find” Jewish life and values but to help “create” them.

What wisdom there was on that t-shirt.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010 and took up her position as Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia, India, Iceland Poland and Morocco to participate in and teach interreligious dialogue. She is also a teacher of Torah and Jewish History, a Scrabble fanatic and an Israeli folk-dancer.
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