Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week's Torah reading presents those of us trying to compose a cogent piece, perhaps, the greatest difficulty in finding a central theme to develop.   Discussing Noach himself is always a possibility, but not a very attractive one.  We always get stuck on our ambivalence toward this enigmatic and reluctant hero.  Was he really worthy or just the best of a bad lot?  No one knows for sure, and the circular debates go on unabated.  However, the greatest question nagging the reader of this week's parsha is probably, why do we bother with this material?  Who really cares what happened to the generation of the flood or the builders of the Tower?  They are gone and forgotten, because both their DNA and their ideology are no longer relevant.  So, in retrospect what can we really garner from this week's eclectic collection of tales?   I think that the upshot of the messy material presented in parshat Noach is that there's a necessity to have a chosen nation.  The world at large tends towards either chaos (the generation of the Flood) or totalitarianism (the generation of the Tower of Babel).  For humankind to continue to develop and evolve there must be at least one group staying focused on the prize, universal ethical monotheism.

            I'd like to ignore one of the most fascinating problems in this issue, namely why us.  This quandary will be dealt with in separate articles discussing the merits of the Patriarchs.  Instead I'm going to try to figure out whether or not this appointment has been good or bad for the Jews.  It's indisputable that this choseness has been cited by anti-Semites for a long time.  I find it intriguing that before two centuries ago most of the diatribes against the Jews were based on the theory within Christian dogma that Christianity replaced Judaism as the New Israel.  Augustine (354-430) cited the continued existence of the Jews as bearing witness through their suffering of their rejection by God.  Somehow that proves the veracity of Christian claims of becoming God's elect.  This so called Replacement Theology hated the Jews more for their continued rejection of the Church than for the charge of Deicide.

            In the past two centuries, the thrust of anti-Semitism has shifted to a hatred of Jews because we claim to be chosen within a context of universalism, where there can be no claim of preference or special status for any one people.  President Charles de Gaulle of France articulated this position when he observed in a news conference shortly after 1967's Six Day War that the Jews have long been an 'elite people, self confident and domineering' who are 'provoking ill will.'   Why not blame the victims?   More recently the famous Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis told an interviewer that 'today it is possible to say that this small nation is the root of all evil; it is full of self-importance and evil stubbornness.'  The Jewish interviewer then asked what holds the Jews together, and Theodorakis explained that it's our choseness.  It's interesting that the theme of stubbornness persists.  In the Middle Ages we were stubborn to reject the choseness of the Church and today we're stubborn, because we continue to believe in our own choseness.  God called the Jews of the desert stiff necked or stubborn.  This trait has remained throughout the ages.  I guess it's one of the reasons that we're still here.

            But what is the essence of this choseness?  We get our first inkling next week, when Avraham is told:  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).  Later in Genesis we are given a concrete example of this phenomenon in the Joseph story.   Joseph saves Egypt and, indeed, the entire Middle East, during the seven years of famine.  Just as was promised to Avraham, the chosen are meant to benefit the unchosen as well.  This may explain the title given to Joseph by the Egyptians.  He is called Avrech (41:43), and although there are a number of interpretations for this name, it does seem to be related to the word baruch or blessing.  The Jew is expected to bring tangible benefits to the gentile population, and they are expected to acknowledge this bounty.

            This amazing story contrasts with the traditional point of view that the benefits bestowed by the Jews are spiritual and intangible.  This is, of course, based on the expression in the book of Isaiah, ohr lagoyim.  This phrase appears three times:  I am the Lord; I called you with righteousness and I will strengthen your hand; and I formed you, and I made you for a people's covenant, for a light to nations (42:6); It is too small a thing for you to be My servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the besieged of Israel, but I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth (49:6); And nations shall go by your light and kings by the brilliance of your shine (60:3).  These verses become the basis for the mission theory of Jewish destiny.   I believe that a careful reading of these three verses seems to lead to a double conclusion.  The Jews have a duty to maintain and continually renew our own ethnicity, but we also have a responsibility to provide guidance to the world at large.

I have a strong suspicion that these two goals can never be uncoupled.  Even though there have been long periods of Jewish history when one position overshadowed the other, I think that the two must coexist.  Sometimes our influence has been indirect and other times we've intimately worked with other nationalities, but the two march in lock stepped unity.  The best expression of this duality is the Aleinu prayer which concludes all of our synagogue services.  In the first paragraph, we discuss our national obligation to worship and revere God, and recognition that we are unique in this commitment.  The second paragraph, on the other hand, emphasizes our duty to spread this message and make this world a better place.  For me the critical phrase is 'to repair the world under the Kingdom of God.'  The text goes to anticipate the time when 'all living flesh will call Your name, and for all the wicked of the Earth to turn to You.' 

We Jews have an eternal balancing act.  We must maintain our separateness while simultaneously feeling a strong requirement to influence others.  If we veer too far to one extreme we lose our identity, if we move to the other pole we lose our mission and purpose.  It's not easy, but it's our role. 



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