Weekly Parsha: One Question, Five Voices
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
How do we fulfill the Jewish mission today?
Rabbi Sherre Z. Hirsch
Senior Rabbinic Scholar, Hillel International
Our son, Levi, at age 7 was asked by an adult acquaintance of ours, What “kind” of Jew are you? Levi, not understanding the question, silently stared back at him. Thinking that Levi did not hear the question, he asked again, emphasizing the word “kind,” hoping that Levi would respond with a familiar label like Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Levi grinned from ear to ear and said, we are “joyful Jews.”
What I want most to communicate to my children, my students and my congregants is for each person at their core to serve God with joy, for that is what Moses wanted from each of us — to serve God with joy (and by extension each human being as an expression of the Divine presence).
Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement in the mid-19th century, understood that to serve another takes work. We must do a daily accounting of our souls and ask ourselves: How can I serve? Not in the expectation of reward or on the condition of reciprocity. Rather, we need to ask from the space of love, compassion and kindness — the essential ingredients of joy.
If you are a traditionalist, you may serve through the practice of mitzvot. If you are an activist, via tikkun olam. A culturalist? Perhaps through celebration. Pious? Probably you serve through prayer. For an athlete, maybe movement is the method. A spiritualist? Stillness and meditation. Regardless, lose the label, serve with joy and then we can together say, “Mission accomplished.”
Rabbi Yekusiel Kalmenson
CEO, Renewal Health Group
“What does it mean to be Jewish?” is a question as old as Judaism itself. Historically, the first reference to Jewish nationhood comes from the original anti-Semite, Pharaoh. The book of Genesis refers to us as the “children of Israel,” a family unit. Pharaoh adds, “Behold the nation of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we” (Exodus 1:9). Throughout our history, we’ve often been defined by our enemies and have thus self-identified.
Moses changed all of that. His last speech to his liberated tribe of slaves was something to the effect of, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself” (Bernard Shaw). What binds us is not our common enemies and their disdain for us. Our national identity should not be reinforced by hate from others, but by our love for God, our tradition and one another.
Moses empowers us to create an identity for ourselves as universal ambassadors of monotheism and morality. From commerce to cuisine and marriage to meditation, the vastness of Torah is all-encompassing in its range and relevance. Our mission is therefore to forge and proactively create our destiny through exposing the higher meaning in our daily lives.
Moses’ clarion call, therefore, is especially relevant today as anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head yet again. If Judaism is to survive the test of time, it must be processed and personalized by the Jewish community rather be than designed and defined by our detractors.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Founder and Director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals
In his charge to the Israelites, Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, that God redeemed them and gave them a set of commandments. They were never to forget their special mission to live as a righteous nation. Remember who you are; if you forget your special mission, you are lost, you betray God, you betray yourselves.
Woody Allen made a film called “Zelig” about a man who constantly changed his appearance to blend in with the people around him. Zelig pretended to be anyone but turned out to be no one.
During the course of a lifetime, there is temptation to play the role of Zelig. In order to curry favor with others, one adopts their attitudes, opinions, styles and behavior patterns. But in the process, one becomes inauthentic, a play actor rather than a genuine person true to oneself.
Much human misery is the result of people betraying themselves by adopting artificial personae. They are so anxious to impress or blend in with others that they lose their own selves in the process. They no longer have the ability to distinguish between who they are and who they are pretending to be.
Moses charged the ancient Israelites, as he would charge us today: Be true to your Torah, to your identity, to your deepest inner truths. Don’t chase after false gods and glitzy behaviors. If you betray your divine mission, you betray yourself. You were slaves in Egypt, but you are to be the agents of self-respecting freedom.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center and Westwood Village Synagogue
Early in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses articulates his vision for the children of Israel: to be an “Am Chacham v’Navon” — a “Wise and Understanding People” (Deuteronomy 4:6). There are five key components to our achieving this status:
1. “V’ahavta — You shall love God” (Deuteronomy 6:5) “Fulfill God’s commandments from a place of love,” says Rashi, so that Judaism never seems like a burden in our lives.
2. “V’ahavtem — You shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) “Those who forget what it feels like to be a stranger eventually come to oppress strangers,” says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Born out of our bitter experiences as slaves in Egypt, we should never reach the point of oppressing strangers. Never.
3. “Zachor — Remember what Amalek did to you” (Deuteronomy 25:17). Amalek represents pure evil. As a people who experienced Amalek’s evil first hand, we must never turn a blind eye to evil. We must stand up to evil, speak out against it and fight it by all means necessary.
4. “Lo Tasur — You shall not deviate to the right or to the left” (Deuteronomy 17:11). Extreme interpretations of Judaism are not sustainable. We must strive toward Maimonides’ ideal, the “Golden Middle Path.”
5. “V’asita ha-yashar — You shall do what is upright and good” (Deuteronomy 6:18). What does God ultimately want from us? To be honest, good people.
How do we fulfill this mission today? Simple: Love God, love the stranger, fight evil, shun extremism, be good. Not so simple, I know … but let’s keep trying.
Rabbi Jackie Redner
Rabbi in Residence, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services
The Jewish people’s mission is to bring holiness into the world even during life’s darkest moments. When the adrenaline of war, lust and the desire to overpower another is upon us, this week’s parsha asks us to say “no” to ourselves:
When you go into battle against your enemies … and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her … you shall bring her into your house, she shall shave her head. … Remove the garments of her captivity and let her mourn her father and mother for a full month. — Deuteronomy 21:10-13
Before you do anything that may hurt another, learn how to say “no” to yourself. Stop — and in the moment between thought and action, search out, touch and then cleave to that which is real within you, beyond the mantle of the body and its reactivity.
Stop — before self-centeredness and limited perspective lead you to wrong another. See beyond appearances. See all the way through to the heart of the one who stands before you, beyond the mortal shell that we all wear and that makes us all vulnerable.
Do this. Take this moment so that God’s compassion can arise within you. Do this, all of this, so that through you, God’s compassion can begin to heal the broken heart of humankind.
Whether in business, politics, medicine or partnership, the ability to say “no” to oneself is central to the Jewish mission, and it is how Jews bring God’s blessing into our world.