The Jew You Want To Be

Rosh haShanah Sermon Agudas Achim 2017/5778
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Jew You Want To Be

What kind of a Jew do I want to be?

Let the question roll of your tongue and linger in your mouth. Let it slide down your gullet and burrow itself into your heart, your kishkes – your gut – and your neshamah – your soul.
Take the question home with you and let it dwell among your friends and family, among the Jews you share this space with and the non-Jews we share our lives and world with.

What kind of a Jew am I today?
What kind of a Jew do I hope to be?

It’s a strange business, this business of being Jewish. We are not just a religion; we are something else, something more, something thicker and more ancient. We are a People, a tribe, a culture, a religious civilization, a covenantal community. We are bound together by historical fate, shaped by destiny, heritage and choice. We defy the normative taxonomy of religious groups. Our identity can be fractious and all-encompassing, deeply beloved to ourselves as well as profoundly conflicted.

Although our Judaism in all its various shades may feel natural to us, it is not a force of nature. It doesn’t just happen even if it feels like that sometimes. Our Judaism is not determined by randomness or inertia but by what we make of it, day after day, generation after generation.
Our Judaism is rooted in consciousness and choice, in the deep master-stories of our culture, in the sensitivities that we bring towards our world, in the call for our ethics to be rooted in empathy. To be a Jew is to listen to these stories and not only to become attuned to them but to identify with them.
We may find something of eternal value in these stories; stories we keep on coming back to again and again. More than that, we might find ourselves in them.

Even the word ‘Jew’ is worthy of examination. What is the correct nomenclature for what we are? Are we Hebrews, Israelites or Jews? These terms are not accidental and can unlock the key to understanding what kind of a Jew we aspire to be.

Hebrew comes from the term ‘ha’Ivri’ and does not describe a language but a geographical reality as well as being an active verb. Abraham was the first ‘ivri’, from the verb ‘la’avor’ – to cross – as he crossed the River Euphrates as he follows his calling to Canaan.
Israelite is not the designation of a faith but rather of an identity, a process and an encounter. Jacob – Ya’acov – was the second-born of Isaac’s twins who vied with his brother Esau for dominance. It is not until later in his life’s trajectory that he wrestles with a mysterious being on the bank of the river Jabbok and is renamed Yisrael – ‘God wrestler’.
Yehudah in turn embodies presence and promise. One of the twelve sons of Jacob, he is the moral exemplar of his family and named as an act of gratitude: his name is based on the root ‘yud-hey-dalet’, or the verb ‘Lehodot’, to thank or praise.

What can we learn from them from these different modalities of Jewishness?

The term Hebrew is first used to describe Abraham in Genesis 14:3 after the War of the Five Kings. Abram (before he received his extra letter hey) and Lot are traversing the rich valley of Sodom and Gomorrah. The stage is set: this is a part of the world that’s rich in both resources and conflict; there has been internecine war and rebellion among the five kings of the Sodom Valley for twenty-five years. Sodom and Gomorrah are not yet held to account by God for the sins of their cruel inhospitality although the signs of instability are clearly there—the Torah even describes a refugee crisis as a consequence of the conflict: ‘Va’anasu melech Sedom v’Amora vayiplu shamah v’nanisharim harah nesu’ – ‘And the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled and they fell there and the remnants [survivors] fled to a mountain’. We can match this brief yet evocative scene with the news that flashes across our many screens. Lot is taken captive in Sodom. This is a new world in crisis and Abram is the perennial immigrant, transient, itinerant outsider. Then there is a strange verse, verse 13 in the 14th chapter that states: ‘vayavo hafalit vayigad l’Abraham ha’ivri…’ – ‘And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew…’.
Abram, who had only received his Abrahamic mission two chapters prior (with the classic line ‘Lech lecha me’artzecha’ – ‘go into yourself, from your land’) is now designated by a non-Abrahamite as an ‘Ivri’. Rashi, citing the Midrash states that he was called thus because he was from across the River Euphrates. Abram had just made his monumental journey to Canaan from Ur-Kasdim in what we would call present-day Iraq.

The heart of the verse, however, is the designation ‘ha’Ivri’. Abram was a boundary-crosser; it was in his very nature to be an iconoclast. He upends the norms of his time and culture and is in perpetual transition. Abraham doesn’t get comfortable: he places justice and righteousness at the forefront of his religious consciousness and ironically, the passages that we read during Rosh haShanah – the banishment of Hagar and Yishma’el and the near-sacrifice of Yitzchak – display Abraham’s few but crucial moral failings. The Abraham who is called ‘to go forth’, who challenges God to not destroy the innocent alongside the wicked, is ‘ha’Ivri’.

How can we be more like Abraham? How can we embrace our inner iconoclast, our inner sojourner, and stand up for the values we hold dear as Jews?

Then there is Yisrael.

Jacob is one of the most complex characters in the book of Genesis, alongside with his younger son Joseph. Stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, his story is a complex narrative of ‘middah keneged middah’, ‘tit for tat’ as he defies his cheating uncle Laban and navigates the tensions of his convoluted family life. Jacob is a trickster who alienated those around him. He does not rely on his integrity but on wit. Eventually, he becomes successful, siring eleven sons and one daughter and he leaves his uncle’s domain as a wealthy man. However, when he is confronted by the prospect by facing down the broken and possibly dangerous relationship with Esav, his brother, Jacob finds himself in an existential encounter.
He finds himself decamped at the bank of the River Jabbok and he has divided his camp to minimize potential loss in a possible armed conflict with Esav. Even in crisis, he is a clever and level-headed man. As night falls, a strange narrative unfolds: ‘Vayakom balaila hu, vayikach et shtei nasav v’et shtei shif’chotav v’echad eser yaldav, vayavor et ma’avar Yabok…. Vayitaver Ya’acob lavdo, vayabek ish imo ad a lot hashachar.’ – ‘And he rose in the night and took his two wives and two maidservants and his eleven children and he crossed the River Jabbok… and Jacob was left alone and then wrestled a man until daybreak.’ (Gen. 32:22-25)

Jacob triumphs over the mysterious being and curiously asks his vindicated foe for a blessing. The angel then blesses him and renames him: ‘lo Ya’akov ye’am’er od shimcha – ki im Yisrael, ki sharita im Elohim v’m anashim vatuchal.’ – ‘your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel for you wrestled with God and men and prevailed.’

This is the moment where Jacob discovers his moral humanity. This is the moment he becomes Yisrael, a Jew.

What does it mean to ‘wrestle with God and prevail?’ The great gift of Judaism is our ability to question and our permission to challenge. Jacob truly becomes Abrahamic in this moment – he does not only sire actual progeny but establishes his spiritual legacy. We do not establish our spiritual legacy through blind faith or intellectual conformity but through embracing out our existential struggles and balancing our authenticity with integrity.

We are called to be Yisrael, God wrestlers, and wrest meaning and morality from our complex and messy lives.

Then the third archetype is Yehudah: the Grateful One.
Yehudah was the fourth son of Jacob with his fecund wife, Leah. An important trope of the foundational stories of our People is that the first-born right is perpetually upended.
It isn’t Reuven, Shimon and Levi who become the symbolic guarantors of the Jewish People, but Yehudah. In fact, all three sons would come to be moral disappointments: Reuven for sleeping with his father’s handmade Bilhah and Shimon and Levi for instigating the massacre in Shechem. If naming a child is one-sixtieth of prophecy as the Talmud insists, then Leah’s choices are telling. Reuven, Shimon and Levi are named for her pain. She is less beloved to Ya’acov than her younger, more beautiful sister Rachel. A fertile but emotionally forgotten wife, she cries out for recognition. She wants to be seen, heard and accompanied – these are the Hebrew roots of her sons’ names.

Yet she pivots and finds emotional maturity when she gives birth to Yehudah. ‘Vatomer hapa’am odeh et Adonai al ken kar’ah shemo Yehudah’ – ‘and she said, this time I will praise the Eternal and therefore his name is Yehudah’. It is a brief moment of repose in a heart-wrenching narrative of four women competing for the affections of one man; disempowered to different degrees. Yet Leah finds the strength and greatness of her soul to humanize herself, take charge of her existential fate and find blessing amidst the pain. Her reward is that Yehudah becomes the most moral of Ya’acov’s sons, alongside with Joseph. When the brothers plot to kill Joseph, it is Yehudah who defies peer-pressure and spares his life by selling him to Ishma’elite slave-traders. Yehudah intervenes again in the Joseph story to save Benjamin’s life.

When Ya’acov/Yisrael lays dying, he blesses Yehudah to become his spiritual heir. ‘Yo lasur shevet mi’Yehudah’ – ‘the scepter will not depart from Judah’. (Gen. 49:10).

Jewish gratitude is no platitude – it is a strong-willed, honest, real sense of thankfulness. Gratitude builds up lives and bequeaths legacies for generations to come. How can we be more like Yehudah, a flawed but brave man who stood in the breach and who healed his mother’s spirit?

We look to the stories of our people for wisdom. At this moment of transformation and transition, for you and me both, these ancient narratives provide comfort and perspective. During Rosh haShanah, we weave the stories of Genesis into our liturgy and Torah reading. We wrestle with them, examine them for their insights into the human condition and pattern ourselves after them.

Be an Ivri, a Yisrael and a Yehudah. Be wise like Sarah, strong like Leah and clever like Tamar. Find your Jewish voice and explore how you want to be a sacred iconoclast, an upstander for justice, a God-wrestler and a moral exemplar who moves through the world to embrace its beauty and goodness.

May we be blessed to become the best Jews that we can be; to find questioning and gratitude exist side by side in our souls, to include those who are outsiders by cherishing our own transient role. And by remembering that we are part of a great story.
The Torah wants these stories to be told and for us to add new stories to the old.

A Jewish identity should be driven by our values, our profound sense of self and compassion for the other and through raising our eyes to Eternity. As the 20th century writer and philosopher Edmond Fleg famously wrote:

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks any possible sacrifice of my soul.
I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it. 
I am a Jew because Israel places Man and his unity above nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because above Man, the image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.

What kind of a Jew do we want to be? We get to make that choice today, and every day onwards, in this beautiful New Year and for all years yet to come.


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