Saturday, April 27, 2013

Jews and All the Peoples of the Earth

One of the great things about being a bat/bar mitzvah tutor is that I'm constantly learning from twelve-year-olds.

Sam is studying Parshat Vayetze for his bar mitzvah ceremony this fall.  The portion begins with Jacob's dream, in which he sees angels going up and down a ladder with its feet on the ground and its head in heaven.  In the dream, God says to Jacob, "And all the peoples of the land shall be blessed in you." (In, or with, or through: all possible translations of the Hebrew original.)

"What does it mean, they will be blessed in you?" I asked Sam.  He answered, "I think it means you will be good to them.  You'll be kind and helpful and make their lives better."

There could be more studied answers.  There could be deeper answers.  But Sam's answer expresses a long-held and intensely felt part of the Jewish tradition.  We are here to make life better for one another.  Whether through personal acts of kindness, or charity, or politics, or social movements, Jews have committed themselves to the ideal of tikun olam, the repair and perfection of the world.

It's significant that this impulse directs itself toward "all the peoples of the land."  Jews take care of their own, and we don't stop there: we try to create a just society. 

It's also significant that our conversation took place in a temple, over a Torah portion, in preparation for a bar mitzvah.  Of course people can dedicate themselves to helping their neighbors from any religious standpoint, or from none at all.  For Jews, however, our tradition pushes us and our institutions channel us in that direction.  When we act for tikun olam, our Jewish and universal selves act as one.

That's why I was active in New Jewish Agenda, whose slogan was "a progressive voice in the Jewish community and a Jewish voice among progressives."  That's why I'm proud to be a consultant to JOIN for Justice, which is training the next generation of Jewish leaders in the journey towards social justice.  And that's why I'm headed off this morning to celebrate another bat mitzvah at Temple B'nai Brith, an inclusive, egalitarian, and welcoming synagogue, which will host a visiting Pakistani delegation this morning. 

Because being Jewish is how I connect with all the peoples of the earth.

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