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WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A JEW?

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A JEW?

Thursday, 22 September, 2016 - 2:00 pm

 

A gunman breaks into a home. Pointing his rifle at the woman, he asks for her name. The terrified woman mutters, “Elizabeth.”

“This is your lucky night,” the gunman responds. “I just can’t kill somebody who carries my mother’s name, may she rest in peace. My mother was a special woman.”

He then points the rifle at her husband’s head. “What is your name?” thunders the gunman. The poor man is terror-struck. “If you don’t want your brains blown out, tell me your name right now!” the gunman shouts.

“My name is Harry,” the horrified man replies, “but they call me Elizabeth.”

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, has a strange verse. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. An entire generation passed since they left Egypt. Then Moses spoke to the Hebrews just weeks before his passing: "Pay attention and listen, O Israel! This day, you have become a people to the Lord, your God. ”

“Today you have become a people?” Really? They were a free people for four decades. Imagine the US President declared at the State of the Union address: “Today you have become a people!” Naturally, people would be deeply offended. Are Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams “chopped liver”?

When is the first time we Jews are defined as a nation? Throughout Genesis we are not called a nation even once. Then we are a family, titled “the children of Israel,” coming from our father Jacob who was later named Israel. So when and how did we become a nation, a people? The answer is astounding. The title “nation” was conferred upon the Hebrews by none other than… Pharaoh, the tyrannical king of Egypt.

About 130 years passed from when Pharaoh said that, and Moses’ words in Ki Tavo: Today you have become a nation. How can this be? Is it not insulting and untrue?

With this verse, the Torah addresses one of the great questions that define the Jew throughout history. What does it mean to be a Jew? What makes you Jewish? What is the common thread that binds all Jews?

The answer to these questions essentially captures two definitions of Jewish nationhood, one given by Pharaoh, and the other by Moses. Pharaoh defined us as a nation in terms of anti-Semitism. We were the group that posed a challenge to the Egyptian Empire and to humanity in general. What made us Jewish was that Pharaoh was threatened by us, and determined to destroy us.

Moses’ definition of our people was radically different. “You shall become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” he told us at Sinai. “Today you have become a nation, and you shall observe all of G-d’s Mitzvot.” We are bound together by a vision to construct a holy world, to grant history the dignity of purpose, to build a world saturated with light and love. What unites us is a covenant of love, a shared commitment to recognize the image of G-d in every person and the unity of humanity under one G-d. What binds us as a people, said Moses, is not that Pharaoh hates you, but that G-d loves you. This is why Moses was adamantly declaring “TODAY you have become a nation.” Not yesterday, but today.

Don’t let the Pharaohs of history define the meaning of being a Jew. The meaning is that you were chosen by G-d to be His ambassador to the world—an ambassador of love, light, hope, morality, justice, peace and holiness.

I once asked someone who is extremely secular, “Are you my brother?” He replied: “Yes I am, I am a proud Jew.”

“What connects you and I?”

“We share the same destiny, ”he said.“ Hitler would have sent us both to the gas chambers. Isis, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, see us BOTH as manifestations of the devil. You and I are Jews. We are subjected to the same fate.”

He was correct, but also wrong. This definition is the one that Pharaoh gave us. In his mind we were a nation in the sense that our blood is less red, that our freedom can be snatched. In Egypt, we were a minority with no rights at all, so discrimination against us was justified.

75 years ago, we experienced the same fate. Jews from Berlin and Jews from Warsaw, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, left-wing communist Jews and right-wing Zionist Jews, reform and orthodox, were all decimated with the same glee and passion. We were united by hate.

Moses told the Jewish people, Today you have become a nation! Today! Here, with G-d, not there in Egypt.

You can’t inspire your children to remain proud Jews if their only understanding of Jewish identity is the bad things that happened to us. Moses was saying that we need to give our loved ones a Judaism saturated with stimulation, happiness and inspiration. It must be based on love, depth, and affirmation. Judaism is about the celebration of Torah and Mitzvot, a deep commitment to morality and holiness, to love and charity, to children and education, to mending the world, one Mitzvah at a time.

In 1952, in a Chassidic Shul in Brooklyn, the Klausenburger Rebbe stood and listened to the “curses” in Ki Tavo being read in a hushed voice. Suddenly, the Rebbe screamed: “Louder! Louder! Read the curses out loud. Let G-d hear what is being read! All the curses have already been fulfilled. Now, there must be only blessings for our people.... When the prayers had concluded, this man, who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust, faced the people and said, “My beloved brothers and sisters, pack your belongings. We must make one more move–hopefully the last one. G-d promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.”

We must unite as true brothers and stand up for our people, for Israel, our homeland, for justice and peace. But our curses must never define us. Our blessings must define us more than anything.

Indeed, “Now there must be only blessings!” It is time He sends the greatest and most vital blessing, the blessing of Moshiach and our true and complete redemption, now!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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