The Jewish people, it must be said, are unique. Most peoples in the world celebrate their New Years with firecrackers and midnight parties and merriment. The Jews, by contrast, mark their new year by beating their breasts and begging God for forgiveness. And why not? Most peoples have as their national books great tales of heroism and goodness – they have their Iliads and Odysseys and Knights of the Round Table – while our national book tells us how terrible we are. In fact, the Bible’s complete title should read, “The Bible or How God Trusted Us and We Let Him Down.”
Certainly, our Biblical tradition instills in us a sense that somehow we weren’t good enough, that we could have done more, that we could have lived up to the lofty standards of God’s covenant with Israel. But the Bible also bestows on us another identity, that of a nation of priests, a holy people, a light unto the world.
That tension – between a moral inferiority complex on the one hand and, on the other, a sense of moral obligation – is hardwired into the Jewish world-view. The contradiction is compounded by another conflict: the Jews as a people responsible first and foremost for themselves and, conversely, the Jews as a people dedicated to the betterment of all. The same Bible that contains six-hundred and thirteen commandments for Jews also ordains non-Jews to obey the so-called Noahide Laws. In Leviticus, God says I have “separated you from all other nations.” But in Deuteronomy, God also instructs us to provide for “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”
Together, the seemingly irreconcilable dynamics of Jewish identity have immensely impacted the course of Jewish history – indeed, in the history of the world. In addition to promulgating the revolutionary ideas of a single God and a universal morality, to say nothing of the proto-democratic notion of fallible kings, the Jews inspired the faiths to which roughly half of humankind now subscribes.
The Jews made these monumental contributions while committed to their identity as a people and not necessarily out of a sense of universal duty. But that commitment was, throughout most of Jewish history, the product not only of free choice but also of legal and physical strictures. Incarcerated behind ghetto walls, forbidden to follow all but a few professions, the Jews had little choice but to be a people apart.
The situation radically changed with the advent of modernity. For the first time, the Jews had the option between peoplehood and universalism – between one of the two conflicting components in their identity. Impelled by their twin impulses of collective guilt and noblesse oblige, a great many chose the Communism, a universalist idea that aspired to cure all of the world’s evils. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, membership in the Russian Communist Party was disproportionately Jewish. Another universalist project, Esperanto, the first global language, was founded by a Polish Jew named Zamenhof and also attracted a great many Jewish adherents.
Meanwhile, millions of eastern European Jews immigrated to the West and, especially, to the United States. There, too, they had a choice: whether to remain within the folds of Jewish tradition or whether to anglicize their names, forget the haggim, and assimilate. Similarly, they had to decide whether to support specifically Jewish or universalist causes—whether to give to the UJA or the United Way. Was their first responsibility to their fellow Jews, their fellow Americans or their fellow man?
Judaism itself was wrestling with these dilemmas. Could it strike a balance between commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish commitment to the world – between tribalism and universalism. The response came in the latter part of the 20th century with the emergence of the concept of tikkun olam, which translates literally as repairing the world.
The term, which we recite in our Aleinu prayer, does not appear in the Bible. Rather, it is taken from the Talmud and, later, from kabbalah, with different meanings – from the rights of divorced women to the mystical need to reclaim the divine sparks of creation. But increasingly in the United States, tikkun olam came to connote the responsibility of Jews not only or even firstly to their own people but to the world as a whole. That dedication was not necessarily spiritual alone but also financial and even physical. Instead of funding and building a new Jewish community center, American Jewish philanthropists might enable the construction of a new school in an impoverished country.
The collapse of the ghetto walls offered Jews yet another choice: not of remaining in Russia or immigrating to America, but of returning to their ancient homeland, the Land of Israel. Jews could become Zionists and blend their traditions with modern modes. They could take an ancient language that had no word for computer and infuse it with new life (“Computer” in Hebrew, by the way, is machshev, derived from lachshov, to think). They could teach Jews who had never farmed to plow the earth and invent drip irrigation. They could give Jews who had never fought the right and the moral guidelines to defend themselves. They could ingather millions of Jewish refugees, offer them education at six world-class universities and opportunities in a cutting-edge, high-tech economy. They could create a country that would endow them with a new identity and a reborn dignity. Home to the world’s largest Jewish community today, one of the world’s oldest and most resilient democracies, Israel is an answer.
And, it seems, Israel may be the answer. Communism failed, and Israel gave shelter to hundreds of thousands of its victims. Assimilation greatly eroded Jewish identity in the Diaspora, but young Diaspora Jews are now regaining their identity through Birthright and other educational programs in Israel.
Still, how can we reconcile Jewish unity and, particularly, the primacy of Diaspora-Israel relations with the vision of tikkun olam? It’s the old biblical conundrum: How can we remain loyal to ourselves as a people and still show empathy for others?
Here, too, Israel offers the solution. Through its groundbreaking scientific and medical research, its exploration of alternative sources of energy, its development of sustainable agriculture capable of feeding millions – Israel is performing tikkun olam. When Israel Defense Force doctors and nurses set up the first functioning mobile hospital in earthquake-devastated Haiti or in a fire-scorched village in the Congo – Israel is performing tikkun olam. When Israel produces the most scientific papers, the most technical patents, and the most Nobel Prizes per capita in the world, that is also tikkun olam.
Tikkun Olam is not only about doing good in the world; it’s also about fighting evil. It’s about standing up to totalitarianism and terrorism and against regimes that threaten not only Israel’s existence but the peace of the world. Israel is leading that tikkun as well.
Jewish people have made their greatest contributions when they acted together as a people and nowhere are Jewish energies more concentrated than in Israel.
This does not mean that Jews should stop contributing to schools in developing countries or, God forbid, cease giving to the United Way. But Israel offers us – all of us – a means for channeling our noblest instincts. In Israel, our identity as Jews faithful to our own people converges with our identity as Jews dedicated to the welfare of the world. In Israel, we can demonstrate how a country situated in the roughest of neighborhoods can still act morally and justly; how a country that has known only conflict can still strive unflaggingly for peace. In Israel, we have the chance to succeed where we failed thousands of years ago – creating a society that lets down neither God nor our fellow man.
Yes, it’s true, on our New Year we beat our breasts instead of lighting firecrackers and beg for forgiveness rather than revel. Yet, this Rosh HaShannah, let us celebrate the extraordinary privilege of being able to unite as a people for our people as well as for all peoples worldwide. Let us rejoice in the existence of the Jewish state that is once again our homeland and a source of hope for humanity.