Last week we studied the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel and in particular his beautiful essay written in the shadow of the Holocaust in 1949, “Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul.” In it he claims that Judaism is not simply about adding meaning to our own lives. It must have relevance for the entire world. “To be a Jew is either superfluous or essential… In keeping faith with our Judaism, we guard the hidden divine light and the noblest of visions, which have been saved for humanity’s future.”
It is a notion worthy of reflection. The Jewish people are called to better the world. Our tradition adds meaning to all of humanity. Some might object to such an idea, thinking that it is given to conceit. Yet, as we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving, I recall the promise of America also held before the other nations of the world. Throughout our history we have continued to believe that our vision of freedom and democracy is something that all should cherish.
President Obama, for instance, said at his first inauguration: “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man -- a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”
Or perhaps you prefer the words of President Bush, offered at his second inauguration, only a few years after the terror of 9-11: “Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty - though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul.”
To be a believer, whether it is faith in America or Judaism, requires a chutzpah that these visions are not about self-fulfillment, but something much grander. We cling to democracy despite the fact that the world appears to waver and teeter toward fundamentalism. And we must likewise cling to our Jewish faith. It is not about what I find meaningful or even spiritually fulfilling. It is instead about what the world needs! Our tradition, for example, holds justice as paramount. And the world certainly requires more justice! Heschel reminds us: “Judaism teaches us to view any injustice…or human oppression as a major tragedy and feel divine joy at bringing happiness to any mortal.”
Jacob, now running from his brother Esau from whom he (unjustly) stole the birthright, finds a place in the wilderness to rest for the night. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven. Angels are climbing up and down upon its rungs. God stands at its head declaring a promise for future generations: “Your descendant shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” (Genesis 28:14)
The dream that begins in this week’s Torah portion and travels through the nation that we cherish and celebrate tomorrow on Thanksgiving is also contained in our faith and rooted in the scroll that we hold in our arms each and every Shabbat. We declare our allegiance to these dreams not so that we might find fulfillment but instead so that the world might be redeemed.
May we never tire in bringing these dreams to the world!
We continue to pray for the peace of Israel. “Our God, God of our fathers and mothers, Rock and Redeemer of the people Israel: Bless the State of Israel, with its promise of redemption. Shield it with Your love; spread over it the shelter of Your peace…”