Our Judaism is a gift that has been bequeathed to us. The question for the modern Jew is: “Will you open the gift?” For no matter how one chooses to practice his/her Judaism, it is a gift that is eternal and keeps on giving in every age and generation. Among the multitude of values, lessons and structures our tradition provides, let me focus on three of particular importance that I believe make us who we are: Sacred Time, Education and Mitzvot.
Sacred Time: When G-dcreated the world, Adonai called all things “good” or “very good.” But when G-dcreated Shabbat, G-d referred to this time—this creation—as “holy.” And indeed, the Jewish person’s ability to mark time as holy is central to all we are. Shabbat, for example, is our way of escaping, for just a bit, the woes of the world, while at the same time envisioning the world as we would like it to be. Shabbat is a time of hope and joy, of rejuvenation and imagination, as well as love and family, community and learning. Having a Shabbat practice is transformative and as the great Israeli culturalist, Ahad Ha’am, said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” This practice of marking time as holy and sacred is that which has helped keep us unique and strong.
We mark time in other ways too—from the moments of birth, we bring our children into the
covenant as a demarcation of this child’s new status in our community and before G-d. When the child becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the moment is punctuated by their maturation and mastery of our tradition—even more, it is indeed about making this moment in this person’s life consecrated. Standing under the chuppah to bless the instant when two individuals become a family is a sanctified snapshot of time. And even when a person dies, Judaism has a way of making those heart-wrenching rituals and moments as hallowed—from the time of death to the burial, from Shiva to Sh’loshim (7 day mourning period to the 30 day period) to 11th month period (the end of the mourning process)—Judaism has a way of making our experiences count as being holy and not ordinary.
In the V’havtah prayer, it states, “And you shall teach your children diligently.” This is a core value of our Jewish heritage. We know that education is the path to transformation. Both Jewish and secular education are at the center of the Jewish experience (this also includes those who have difficulty learning—as learning comes in many forms). We marvel as Jews at the success of our people well beyond the proportions of our numbers. The survival mentality of our community is based in learning more and more so as to advance the good causes of the world in which we live.
The Nobel Prizes unscientifically prove this point: “Approximately 20% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, whereas their share of world population is only estimated by 0.2%—100 times more” https://nobel.bh.org.il/en/about/.
The Israeli Newpaper, Haaretz, comments on this phenomenon, “…Jews love hitting the books… Jewish homes have overflowing bookshelves. Throughout the generations we have given great honor to this intellectual pursuit” https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-the-real-reason-jews-win-so-many-nobels-1.5276705.
Indeed, Judaism’s love of learning is embedded in the Jewish soul. Knowledge is a key to more knowledge. We answer questions in our faith by asking more questions. Learning comes from the journey as much as the destination. The Talmud teaches that one of the questions we will be asked by the Heavenly Judge when our time has come is: “Did you set time aside for the study of Torah? (Talmud Shabbat 31a)” Let the answer to that question be “yes” for us all.
The word mitzvah is translated into English in many ways. Literally, it means “commandment.” But many will translate the word as “good deed” or “sacred obligation.” No matter where one stands on the Jewish spectrum, there is no escaping that Judaism is mitzvah-centric—that is to suggest that the Jewish people are a people of deeds. Rarely is a Jew judged by what he thinks, but by much more by what he does. There is no “being” Jewish really, unless someone “does” Jewish. Although the word “Jewish” is an adjective and the word “Jew” is a noun—being a Jew or being Jewish are really metaphoric verbs—for we must always be doing, from ritual observances to tikkun olam, from learning to tzedakah (charity), being Jewish is about doing that which is good and right in the eyes of the Eternal One. And a Jew must strive for righteousness and goodness in her deeds. When we fail, we always have an opportunity to improve (the High Holy Days assists us with this). For mitzvot are at the center of Jewish existence…without fulfilling the mitzvot, we would cease to exist. With good deeds as our primary raison d’etre Judaism will thrive as an Or L’goyim—a Light unto the Nations forevermore.
Judaism is an amazing gift to all who are willing to open the gift and let it lift your spirit, soothe your soul and transform the world. Chanukah has come and gone, but the gift of Judaism is an eternal present bequeathed to us by our ancestors and by our G-d. Let us cherish this gift every single day.
RABBI RICHARD STEINBERG Is The Senior rabbi at Congregation shir Ha’malot and a contributing writer to jlife magazine.