What Makes Us Different?
In figuring out our own identities, we both distinguish ourselves by deciding internally who we are as well as comparing ourselves with others. For the Jewish people, we often wonder what makes us different from any other nation? How are we alike and how are we different?
One answer is in an often asked question in Jewish legal literature: Why, for many mitzvot like charity or visiting the sick, is there no blessing? The Torah Temimah answers that the formula of a blessing, “who has sanctified us with his mitzvot and commanded us” is designed to emphasize that we are commanded to do certain things that other nations are not. However, when it comes to moral behaviors, we are not distinguished by difference: other people visit the sick and give money for the poor and so forth.
Therefore what distinguishes Jews alongside Jewish study is specific Jewish behaviors: Hebrew prayer, kashrut, Shabbat; ritual actions addressed to one another and to God. The Jewish way of being in the world is about ethics, but it is never about ethics alone. It is also about a language and relationship to God, to one’s own soul and to one another. That language of observance, liturgy and custom deserves to be blessed.
The Direction of Time
When I was in school we learned about a supposed difference between the Greek and Jewish conception of time. The Greeks, we were told, thought of time in a circular fashion, that it repeated itself. The Jews, pointing to the Messiah, thought of time as linear, headed to a destination. Ecclesiastes which talks about the sun rising and setting and returning to where it rose, is the biblical book most influenced by Greek thought.
In the years since, there has been a good deal of discussion and criticism of that as a too-simple dichotomy. After all, we repeat the holidays each year and the reading of the Torah is cyclical and the tradition assumed that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes without thinking it alien to Jewish wisdom.
I have come to think of Jewish time as a sort of spiral. We return to where we were before, but never in the same place. We hope to be advancing, moving toward some sort of redemption. In this new year some things will doubtless be new; but we will read the Torah again and have many experiences we have had before; may we confront each with more elevated ideas and more developed souls.
Today is Real, Too
When I was in college people would tell me that it was not ‘real life.’ Everyone had a definition of ‘real life’ – it began when one was married, or had a job, or had children.
We promote this idea of provisional living – during the pandemic we say we aren’t living ‘real life.’ Someone told me we should now wish one another “until 121” instead of the biblical 120 years, since 2020 does not count.
But it is not so. Every day and every week and every year is equally ‘real.’ Kindergarten is as real as graduate school which is as real as raising a child or having a grandchild. The great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, said that Jews who waited for the Messiah were ‘living life in deferment.’ But life does not wait for those who think they can hold it in abeyance. It is real and it is now.
Do not wait to live. Each day during the pandemic is as real as the days that will follow. Before you must surrender your soul back to the One who created it, live each day with the seriousness and joy and purpose for which we were made.