Jews (and the 3,300 year-old project of Judaism) are pretty meshugana! We believe in the most radical way that everything we do matters and that we can and must change the world. Even though there are only about 13 million of us, we believe that every one of us matters in our national and global commitments to transform the world. Is it okay that we are so radically hopeful?
Edgar Allan Poe once wrote: “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.”
We, as a people, are ambitious and strive to excel beyond the norm, and sometimes we draw credit or blame where none is due. This is perhaps why, when 4 Americans are murdered in Libya, immediately there are accusations that it was a Jew behind the video that agitated the rioters and terrorists.
Albert Einstein once said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” We are a people with a bold task and the rigorous ethical and religious demands of the Torah. And we believe that we are free and capable of changing the world. Animosity from small minds will always assail us and others may remain aloof. Sometimes we may also be challenged by our own lack of personal autonomy and sense of responsibility.
Do you recall the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was raped and murdered in New York City as dozens of people watched from their windows doing nothing? Social psychologists showed that the larger the number of bystanders, the less likely we are to intervene to help another. Perhaps we see that others are not helping so we need not help. Or perhaps we feel that someone else has probably responded or may be better equipped to help so we need not help. We are social beings, and at times social conformity can have disastrous results. Rather than live with the bold goal of actualizing our individual responsibility, too often we live with the goal of avoiding shame, avoiding doing anything new or different than what is done all around us, avoiding risk.
The shortest question in the Torah is, remarkably, G-d's first question in the Torah. It is a question asked in Genesis 3:9. Adam and Eve had just eaten some fruit from the forbidden tree and, sensing G-d's presence in the Garden of Eden, they hid among the trees. While they were hiding, G-d asked Adam a one-word question. Ayeka? “Where are you?”
This is a question only those with courage ask themselves each year: Where am I? Am I just getting by? Eating, sleeping, working? Seeking instant gratification? Or am I driven by a greater purpose? Am I aware every day that what I do with my life truly matters? There is indeed an urgency to find ourselves. When we arise each day from bed, and we say “Hineni,” (here I am) we know that we cannot resolve all of the problems of the world, but we know we can try our best. As we learn in Pirke Avot (2:21), “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it.”
One of the great sicknesses thriving today in the 21st century is cynicism. Ever seen it? Someone who thinks that nothing is important and nothing matters and nothing needs to change. Things are really just fine as they are, or maybe terrible and not worth improving. It is perhaps the most un-Jewish approach to life and the most uninspired way to live. It is a sickness that spreads to all others around: where everything becomes a joke rather than a holy opportunity to engage.
Maimonides, the Rambam, teaches in Hilchot Teshuva (his work dealing with Rosh Hashanah and repentance) that we should view our lives as if we were standing on a scale and our next action will determine whether the world is redeemed or destroyed. Now how many of us really believe that our next action will have this impact? We need not believe it. But Rambam is teaching that this is a way to see the world and live our lives. We are to live as though everything matters. We live with hope and faith and possibility.
I think of my friend and teacher Oscar in Guatemala. Oscar lost all of his family in war. His friends, all around him, gave up. There was no more meaning, no more hope, no more purpose. Somehow, Oscar found the courage and inspiration to protest this mentality. Today, Oscar travels from poor village to poor village around his country helping the leadership to build their communities. Oscar saw the bait to deny hope and to be stuck in the past. He resisted, and is a faith hero!
Rav Hayyim, a close student of the Baal Shem Tov from the town of Krosno, used to love to watch the rope dancer with awe and attentiveness. One day, his students asked him why he spent so much free time watching the man on high dancing upon a rope. He responded that this person, while risking his life, could not be thinking for even a moment about the 100 gulden coins that he was going to make, because then he would fall. And that this is how we should view our lives—we are all walking on a very thin rope…at any moment, it could all be over for us. If we remember this, then we’ll always have to be focused on the big things that really matter. We should consider what Kafka once said—“the meaning of life is that it ends.” Our lives are deeply sacred!
Rav Shlomo Karlin, of the 18th century, once explained that the greatest yetzer hara (inhibition against doing good) is that we forget that we are the children of the King (we forget Avinu Malkeinu). We are not without value or purpose. We are here because G-d brought us into being with love and gave us work to do, saying in a quiet voice, “Bring a fragment of my presence into other lives.”
We are free to answer the question “Ayeka” with deep integrity as we say Hineni. We have the ability and freedom to choose our lives. After all, the absolute foundation of Jewish philosophical commitment is that we are free.
This message is not always clear because unfortunately, the 3 great advocates of determinism were Jews (Karl Marx, Baruch Spinoza, and Sigmund Freud). Karl Marx argued that our behavior is determined by structures of power in society, among them the ownership of property. This is called economic determinism. Baruch Spinoza argued that human conduct is given by the instincts we acquire at birth. This is called genetic determinism. Sigmund Freud argued that we are shaped by early experiences in childhood. This is called psychological determinism.
But determinism leads to excuses. We know that we are affected by our culture, by the economy, by our upbringing, by our genes, etc. But Judaism comes to tell the world that there are no excuses! You are free! You have choice. You are responsible. You can transcend your reality. Adam’s first response is the denial of freedom: the woman gave it to me. And Eve’s first response also denies freedom—the serpent told me to do it. The Torah warns us that at the core of human nature is the need to give excuses and to deny our freedom for how we choose to live.
The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, writes:
“There is no life without a task; no person without a talent; no place without a fragment of G-d’s light waiting to be discovered and redeemed; no situation without its possibility of sanctification; no moment without its call. It may take a lifetime to learn how to find these things, but once we learn, we realize in retrospect that all it ever took was the ability to listen. When G-d calls, He does not do so by way of universal imperatives. Instead, He whispers our name—and the greatest reply, the reply of Abraham, is simply hineni: ‘Here I am,’ ready to heed your call, to mend a fragment of Your all-too-broken world.”
This year, may we embrace our freedom in the deepest way and may we all respond “hineni, here I am, ready to heed your call, to mend a fragment of Your all-too-broken world.”
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"