“See, I give before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day. And the curse, if you will not listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, and you turn from the Way which I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you have not known” (Deut. 11:26-28, translation mine).
The Sefat Emet (Pen name, “The Tongue of Truth,” of the Chasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905), in commenting on these verses, states that “[In] the blessing it says, ‘that you listen,’ but in the curse it says ‘if.’ Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. …Even if there is some sin—and indeed ‘there is no one so righteous as to do good and never sin’ (Eccles. 7:20)—it is only passing” (Green, 1998, pp. 302-3).
Rabbi Arthur Green, from whose masterful The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Phila., PA: JPS, 1998), the above is taken, universalizes the above reference by stating that, although only we Israelites can claim the Covenant dating from Mt. Sinai, all of Humanity “must contain that essential goodness.” In other words, all mortal beings who profess to follow a moral code have a share in the above statement, even if their God-belief, or lack thereof, is not Jewish. To progress as a species, we must take pride, not in the Machinery of War and Destruction, but in a slow, steady progress toward the Light of Peace.
When speaking to my college classes, young people who are mainly Hispanic- or African-American, I strive to point out the irony that we cell-phone-connected, computerized, 21st Century human beings, we who enjoy more efficient communication tools than ever before in history, who ought to be more connected with one another’s thoughts and feelings, are, tragically, like blind people, groping in Darkness, and more divided as a species, than ever before. Whether throughout America or the World, we fail to see one another’s essential Humanity— those traits we share in common: the same drives for survival, happiness, success in life, and safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Instead, we fall back upon our familiar, yet divisive classifications of tribe, language, religion, and politics. As a Jew, perhaps the first one whom these young people have ever met or spoken with, I challenge their stereotypes of my people. Rather than reinforcing what divides us, I seek what unites us, as human beings, with feelings, dreams, and aspirations.
At the time that Moses gave the above speech, he was mortally concerned that his people, whom he rightly judged to be his Lord’s people, were entering a society in which they would be a minority. As free men and women, nomadic in heritage, able to make their own decisions about where to live and whom to marry, he worried that they would swiftly assimilate among the more settled, agricultural peoples of Canaan, and, within a couple of generations, vanish as a unique people. Ironically, this remains a major concern for us Jews, thousands of years later—still separate, still asking the same questions.
As Jews, we are proud of our tribal, religious, cultural, and nationalistic differences, but, as human beings, we must always search for what unites us with other human beings. As we aspire to political freedom, so must we work to understand similar political yearnings in others, provided that the debate over and resolution of such questions takes place in a peaceful setting. The Golden Rule which we gave the World must guide the steps of all right-thinking humanity: if we cannot love all of our neighbors, let us, at least, respect them, and ensure that we receive that same respect—neither as victors or victims, but as equals.
There is an old story about a woman—call her Ms. Richter—who invites her rabbi to visit her home, serving him a cup of tea on her best china, while they sit in the sun room which faces the back yard. Making small talk, the rabbi notices the fence separating the woman’s yard from her neighbor’s, Ms. Jones; he remarks about the freshly-washed sheets and clothing Ms. Jones has hung in the yard, and asks if they are friendly with one another.
“That woman?” scoffs Ms. Richter, “I wouldn’t give you the time of day with her. Why, look at the laundry she hangs out there, on her line. It’s filthy!”
The rabbi gets up, walks to the window, runs his finger along it, and replies, gently,
“Ms. Richter, there is nothing wrong with your neighbor’s laundry. I’m sorry to tell you that the problem is your windows: they’re dirty.”
When we look at the faults of other people, other nations, are we so quick to judge their shortcomings, or should we take the trouble to look beneath the headlines, beyond the shrill cries of their politicians, and see that, beneath the “dirt” which separates us, they are, perhaps, just people—not far different from ourselves, hoping for a Better Tomorrow for themselves and their children? Or are we satisfied with simply looking at them through a dirty window of stereotyping? It’s not easy: we are, after all, all human beings, not Angels—but God gave the Torah to us. What shall we do with it?