September 18, 2019

It’s Time to Update ‘Being a Blessing’

As we celebrate Passover and reflect upon our redemption story, we can only imagine what kind of message this story must have had for the ancient world. It challenged the fundamentals of the conventional life order, showing that the paradigm of slavery was no longer in control and, although it took quite a process with the Pharaoh, at some point the world learned that the dominant lifestyle in the Middle East and other parts of the world had come to an end.

The transformative message that emerged from the Passover story had a clear vision about the issues of power, abuse and freedom. Followed by an endless discourse about the meaning of freedom, this message affected humankind beyond the particular Jewish narrative. 

We are a people with a great past. But can we go on with only memories and success stories? Do we Jews have anything to say about contemporary life and, more important, about the future? Can we challenge any of the existing paradigms and contribute anything to humanity today?

Perhaps our greatest message to the contemporary world would be to demonstrate how Judaism and the Jewish lifestyle can embrace core human needs. To deliver this message, we will have to argue about some existing powerful paradigms that dominate the Western world. We will need courage to bless some paradigms and rebuke others. Moreover, we will need to “rebrand” the Torah and Jewish life so that Judaism stops being “a paradigm of survival” and embraces new understanding of meaning, well-being and happiness.

In this article, I will try to challenge some of our conventional views and will address the question that, in my view, should be at the center of Jewish thought and action: “Why do Jews and Judaism matter in the contemporary world?”

Among the foundational Torah stories about the origin of the world, the central one is the story of the Garden of Eden, which speaks in a symbolic language about the fundamentals of human existence. The Tree of Life (Etz Chaim) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Etz ha-da’at, tov va-ra) are two such symbols. Etz Chaim implies vitality, creativity and love we possess; while Etz ha-da’at stands for duality, free choice and ethics. 

Eve and then Adam ate from Etz ha-da’at, which was prohibited to them, and since then a deep mystery has been imbedded in our reality: Etz Chaim, from which we were supposed to feed, has turned into the prohibited one and remained in the Garden of Eden from where we were expelled; whereas the forbidden tree, Etz ha-da’at, has become the center of our life and feeds us to this day.

The exile of the Jewish people further strengthened the centrality of Etz ha-da’at. For many centuries Judaism has focused on the language of good and evil. We have developed a wonderful set of ethical values to maintain family, community and people. Conserving and preserving our achievements has become the core of Judaism. 

In the 21st century, Jewish existence and vitality need to feed from Etz Chaim. It is this tree that encourages our pursuit of essentiality, well-being and meaning, and that defines how we eat, listen, speak, make love, deal with wealth and cope with sadness, loss and loneliness. It is the foundation for our leaders’ identity as well as for the leader within each of us. The reversal of the Etz Chaim–Etz ha-da’at paradigm will enable addressing the most challenging questions we struggle with today, the first and primary being: “Why be Jewish?” 

A while ago, I met one of the founders of Birthright Israel, who spoke proudly about the program’s extraordinary accomplishments. I was told that in just a few years Birthright will have a positive impact on Jewish demography, and the number of Jews in the world will significantly grow by 2025. I asked a simple question: “So what? Even if the number of Jews were to double, why does this matter?” Many great Jewish leaders aren’t asking this question. 

“The 21st century requires a paradigm shift: We need to strengthen the covenant of destiny and better understand the mission of the Jewish people.”

In Israel and the Diaspora, the Jewish world has an abundant variety of programs whose major aims are to engage Jews in Jewish life and community. With their sophisticated strategies and creative ideas, many great Jewish leaders, thinkers, educators and philanthropists participate in worldwide efforts to ensure Jewish continuity. For many years, I have devoted myself to Jewish education and pluralism in Israel, and I have gained vast experience dealing with Jewish values and their relevance in our era and with the issues of Jewish peoplehood and continuity. 

In 2017, I took a sabbatical to reflect upon my work, as I had begun to feel strongly that I had been part of a paradigm that needed a major review. After long contemplation and numerous discussions, I thought of what has become the crucial question for me and my colleagues regarding the Jewish mission today: Why be Jewish?

Without understanding the added value of Judaism and the Jewish people in the 21st century, we won’t find any meaningful arguments for why a person would choose to belong to the Jewish people and why Jews should remain a people. Our postmodern world has almost broken with the notion of a single, national identity to embrace universal values of humaneness and social justice. Even the concept of tikkun olam is no longer exclusively Jewish, as many wonderful non-Jews have taken upon themselves the common tikkun olam values.

In “Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen, My Beloved Knocks,” the great essay of 1956, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the Jewish people live under two covenants that are formative for Jewish identity: the covenant of fate (brit goral) and the covenant of destiny (brit ye’ud). The covenant of identity was born from the experience of slavery in Egypt and implies a shared history of persecution and suffering; it was imposed on Jews by the outside world and unites us in the face of hostility. The covenant of destiny started at Mount Sinai, when the Jews chose to become God’s people. Under this covenant the Jewish people have our own voice and will, and we understand our historical mission is to be “God’s witness” on Earth (Isaiah 43:10-12).

The tragedies our people came through in the past centuries deepened and strengthened the covenant of fate. And so today, every act of terrorism committed against Jews — like the recent massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue, every manifestation of anti-Semitism in Europe, and every terror attack in Israel — makes this covenant ever stronger, as Jews around the world identify with the tragedy and show their solidarity. American Jewish federations raise the most money in years of wars and tragedies. Even such important issues as assimilation and attitude toward Israel ultimately belong to the psychological mode of the covenant of fate and the paradigm of our people’s survival.

The 21st century requires a paradigm shift: We need to strengthen the covenant of destiny and better understand the mission of the Jewish people. Professor Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, stated the issue to me with this question: ”Can we be nourished with energy and motivation stemming from the vision of the future and not only from the past?” Indeed, can we imagine an annual campaign that raises money for the vision and future of the Jewish people?

Many thinkers worldwide assert that a fresh mindset is needed to deal with such serious emerging issues of our time — as, for example, the growing gap between the development of technology and the development of human beings. During the last century, technological innovation has created dramatic changes in the daily lives of much of the world’s population. Yet, alongside the phenomenal improvement in our material well-being, many of us suffer from a significant and consistent decrease in our emotional, mental and social well-being. We have lost the art of face-to-face contact and knowing the quality of intimacy. More and more people experience loneliness, anxiety, loss of direction and hope. Apparently, the daily struggle for survival that had been the central issue of human culture has been replaced with higher fundamental needs of belonging, esteem, personal meaning and self-actualization. 

These are the precise issues the “living Torah” should deal with. What does our tradition have to contribute to the existential questions of intimacy, loneliness, pursuit of wealth or dealing with power? Indeed, what is the mission of the Jewish people today? 

The good news is that the answers have always been there — since the very beginning of the Jewish story. The first words God addresses to Abraham — “Vehye bracha” (being a blessing) — imply this mission: “Go forth from your country … And I will bless you … And you shall be a blessing … and in you all the nations of the Earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).”

What does it mean “to be a blessing”?

Vehye bracha is the “post–Garden of Eden” call for vitality, prosperity and meaning, which asserts that their source is not only from God but also from all human beings created in God’s image. The role of Torah and mitzvot is to define accurate measures for the endless abundance of life forces, so that human beings and the environment will be blessed, not abused. 

Unlike Sabbateanism and the New Age movements that imagined the world without boundaries, vehye bracha realizes that there is no return to the Garden of Eden; rather, we must be rooted in reality, responsibility and ethics. 

Vehye bracha is not a set of values, but rather a 24/7 mindset that places the qualities of Etz Chaim at the center of human existence and impacts all our inner emotions and external behavior. To internalize this mindset requires serious work, but it is rewarded with the wonderful gift of abundance and “oneg” (a unique Hebrew word for high-level joy and happiness), and can add a new dimension to the notions of relationships, responsibility and love. Shabbat is the source of bracha. We must add to Shabbat the elements of Etz Chaim and make it the “Jewish workout day” for exercising bracha and oneg.

The Jewish people were called on to live a life of bracha, and by this they will be a model for all the families on Earth. As it appears in the very first verse of “Lekh-Lekha,” the blessing starts with an individual’s growth and develops onward to the family, the community, the nation and the world. There’s no social growth without personal growth, and personal growth should lead to social growth. 

We must start imagining what a blessed economy, media, leadership and politics can be about. The latest elections in Israel made us clearly understand that we need leadership that can create a vision for the future and not only suggest solutions for current problems. Can we imagine a discussion about a “blessed Jewish State” and a “blessed Jewish community” as a shared agenda for Jews worldwide? This may become the novel concept for the new Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds to deal with. Vehye bracha should become the central theme of Israeli-Diaspora dialogue both on individual and communal levels. 

“We must start imagining what a blessed economy, media, leadership and politics can be about. The latest elections in Israel made us clearly understand that we need leadership that can create a vision for the future and not only suggest solutions for current problems.” 

The 21st century is the first time in our history when the particular Jewish story can enter a true and healthy dialogue with the world and address the universal questions of human existence. The way we speak, the way we work, the way we organize our political institutions and our media, the way we perceive the blessing of our body and our sexuality — all can be reviewed today through the bracha lenses to give a new meaning to Isaiah’s words: “Light unto the nations” (Isaiah 41-42; 49; 60). 

We conclude our Passover seder with “Le-shanah ha-ba’ah be-Yerushalayim” (“Next year in Jerusalem”). For thousands of years of exile, this was a prayer for an end of the exile and return to the Land of Israel. Today, when we have the Jewish State with Jerusalem as its capital, “Next year in Jerusalem” stands for our hope and calls for a fresh discussion about the “Why?” question, our future and how we can contribute — in dealing with the questions of meaning, fullness of life and well-being — to the world of bracha.

Le-shanah ha-ba’ah be-Yerushalayim!

Rabbi Mordechai Bar-Or, the founder and past president of Kolot, a study center for social action leadership, has served as a personal rabbi and mentor to many leading Israeli figures including President Shimon Peres. Today Mordechai Bar-Or is a co-founder of a new  Innovative Research Center “V’ehye Bracha” dealing with the themes outlined in the article, from both philosophical and educational perspectives.