Charting A New/Old Path
Freeing ourselves from the burden of isolation and anti-Semitism
The unprecedented Jewish unity we all experienced during the course of the last few months was born in pain – the pain of the abduction and murder of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal; the pain of the Gaza War and the barrage of rockets; the heart-rending funerals of lone soldiers and the unbearable loss of children like Daniel Tragerman; the agony of the deaths of all the brave IDF soldiers, who gave their lives defending the safety and freedom of the people and State of Israel, and indeed of Jews all around the world. During this time we became the epitome of how our sages describe the ultimate unity – “like one person with one heart”, but we were brought together through external forces of hatred directed at us by enemies such as Hamas and its allies, and by a global movement of vicious anti-Semitism, masquerading as opposition to Israeli action in the Gaza War.
It is now time to redeem our unity and uplift it from a place of necessity to a place of choice, from being externally imposed to being internally embraced, from a unity born as a response to hatred to a unity that emerges out of love for each other. But how? This is something we have struggled with for generations. Our Sages teach that it was baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty, which ushered in a long and bitter exile. If we the Jewish people can find an answer to this challenge, we will indeed have the opportunity to transform two thousand years of history. Where do we begin? Every place we start seems to create its own divisions.
These questions relate to another deeper question – how do we redeem Jewish identity from being defined by anti-Semitism? Our history is so blood-stained with the hatred we’ve endured from others, and yet if we raise our children to believe that to be a Jew is to carry the weight of anti-Semitism and persecution and isolation from the rest of the world, this will destroy the inspiration and sense of mission so central to a thriving future.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great Torah sages of the twentieth century, witnessed a generation of Jews emigrate from Eastern Europe to America, many of whom assimilated into the New World, abandoning their Jewish commitment and identity. He suggested that a major contributing factor is captured by a popular Yiddish phrase heard in homes at during those times: “es iz shver tzu zein a Yid” – “it is difficult to be a Jew”. He believed it was this negativity and sense of burden that discouraged and distanced the new generation of Jews born in a free society.
This is the very same conundrum facing us today – how to create Jewish unity and identity that is that is not forged from the enmity of others, but rather is a positive and inspiring affirmation of our noble and ancient legacy. This question goes to the heart of charting a path forward by understanding what it means to be a Jew from a sense of privilege, rather than one of burden.
There is no one simple answer to questions of this magnitude which are deeply rooted in centuries of history – but there are, I believe, few steps we can take to begin the journey to a new kind of Jewish unity and identity. We need to regroup as a nation and realise what it means to be one people with one unique and treasured heritage. We need to unite under the banner of love and and a shared moral vision and destiny, as opposed to bloodshed, war and anti-Semitism. But how?
Perhaps, Shabbat can be the beginning of an answer to the way forward for us today. For thousands of years, since the very inception of our people at Sinai, Shabbat has accompanied us – nurturing us, holding us together, connecting us to our divine mission and giving us our collective identity as a people. It is a unique gift given to us by G-d , and has been our source of strength and vision. It has refreshed and uplifted our spirits throughout the centuries, in good times and bad, in peace and war, in times of prosperity and times of deprivation, in times of tranquillity and times of turbulence. Shabbat has been there for us. It has kept us as Ahad Ha’am famously observed, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
How do we transform this idea into something real for the Jewish world? There is a simple yet compelling movement for our times: the global Shabbat Project. This year on the Shabbat of 24/25 October 2014, parshat Noach, Jews throughout the world will come together in a spirit of unity to keep one complete Shabbat together. A movement of the people has spread across the globe – and as we prepare for this year’s Shabbat Project, there are more than 1200 independent partner groups in more than 200 cities in 34 countries across the world who are doing everything they can to unite us all under the banner of one shared complete Shabbat. The breadth and depth of support for the Shabbat Project has so far been quite astonishing. There has been an outpouring of positive, enthusiastic responses across the entire spectrum. All around the world, Jews of all ages, from all walks of life, across all levels of Jewish observance and involvement, have joined hands to keep this Shabbat together.
Shabbat brings together in one day everything we cherish about being Jewish. In a world of fragmentation it is a day of connection to faith, family and community; in a world of dislocation it is a day of being rooted in the grand sweep and meaning of our history and the power of our Divine destiny; and in a world of cynicism and selfishness it is a day of spirituality and love.
And so now at this time, when we are grasping for a way forward – for a way to transform the unity born of our collective pain and isolation into something inspiring and life-changing – the global Shabbat Project provides the Jewish world with a unique, historic opportunity to give birth to a new Jewish unity and identity, one of joy and meaning, of privilege and inspiration. It allows us all to take the first few steps to a vibrant pro-active Jewish future. Let us all rally together under the banner of Shabbat.
The Shabbat Project takes place on October 24/25. To sign up or find out how you can bring The Shabbat Project to your community go to theshabbatproject.org