One day in the synagogue, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev seemed to be observing a group of his Hasidim as they prayed. When they were finished, he approached them with a hearty greeting, "Shalom aleichem!"
They looked startled to hear their rabbi pronounce the greeting traditionally given after returning from a long journey. "But Rabbi," they said, "we have not been anywhere!"
The rabbi continued to shake hands with them, as though they were travelers arriving in Berditchev. He said, "From your faces it was obvious that your thoughts were in the grain market in Odessa or the woolen market in Lodz. None of you were actually here while you recited the prayers, so I was glad to welcome you back once you stopped."
This week we read: Adonai said to Avram: Get out from your country, from your family, from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you; And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
Normally when we read these verses we tend to emphasize the going: as if the journey was some kind of quid-pro-quo for receiving the gift of the Land and the People; that the blessing is in response to the going. But one commentator suggests that we look at the blessing itself more carefully, for if we do we’ll find something else—that this is not a reward, but a command, a mitzvah, a sacred obligation. You and your descendants MUST live as to be a blessing.
I’m sure this week you’ve seen at least an article describing the Pew Foundation study on Jews in North America. If not, I encourage you to read the report itself. Most of the articles have involved the kinds of things you’d expect: the wringing of hands and the gnashing of teeth and the focus, as one writer for the Forward opined, about what we’re not. Apparently, according to the study, we’re not as religious as we used to be, we’re not lighting candles anymore, or focused on God, or affiliating. It’s as if the writers of those articles are focused not on where we are, but again are looking forward to the boogieman of a future without a Jewish people. But what if we focused on what we are today instead: that 94% of Jews are proud of their Jewishness, 70% feel connected to Israel, 73% feel remembering the Shoah is essential to their Jewish identity; and 69% feel the same about living ethically? What would happen if we looked at Jewish living not as something to do to get a reward of mere survival, but looked at our Jewish experience as essential to our own living, that to be Jewish is to be compelled to live one’s life as a blessing. Or, as Tolstoy wrote: ‘the Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world.’ What if we lived and expressed our Judaism in that way? Would we invest in moments of greater inspiration, or persist in creating gimmicky programs meant to bring people into the building? Would we take each other more seriously and invest in the individual and her experience, and seek to find ways to create meaningful community, or would we as a people continue to pour resources into preserving institutions or events? Will we see the present as an opportunity to invest in people seeking an authentic Jewish connection, or will we pine for the past and agonize about the future?
Perhaps those questions aren’t fair. There’s a lot of data to comb through, after all, and a lot of room for interpretation. But it seems to me that we could either see this report as a source of consternation or as an opportunity: to build relationships with individuals and Jewish community, among individuals who are craving inspiration, to better understand the blessing we are and live that way.
The midrash understands the words lech lecha-go—to mean “betake yourself”, meaning go forth and find your own authentic self, be who you are meant to be. So, who are you meant to be? What does it mean to be a blessing? How would this world be different if you lived that way, and how can we help make that happen? We must answer these questions for ourselves and together. Otherwise, the opportunity is lost, and the journey will only be in our heads.