“When Yeshua saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were faint and scattered abroad, like aimless sheep having no shepherd.– Matthew 9:36
“Who are you? A Jew. Where are you from? Egypt. Where are you going? Jerusalem.” – Haggadah: Identity Ritual
We are entering the month of Elul – an acronym in Hebrew for the phrase from Song of Solomon, “I am my Beloved’s, and (s)he is mine.” (Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi li.) It is seen by traditional Judaism as an invitation to prepare for the High Holidays in the next month with loving attention to God, Truth, and Justice. There are few truths more influential upon individual or communal human life than truths regarding identity.
Among the more moving stories from the historical season before World War II were the accounts of the sheer bewilderment of the assimilated German Jewish veterans of the First World War, who were totally acculturated as Germans, having ceased to think of themselves as Jews to any substantial degree – whom Nazi soldiers were throwing out of their homes and herding violently into concentration camps while the elderly veterans were holding up their medals and crying out, “We are Germans! We served our Kaiser with honor! Look, here are my military decorations!” ––– only to have the Nazi soldiers dash the medals from their hands with insults all containing the word, “Jude!” (Yoo-deh!) – Jew – and force march them together with their fellow-Jews of more outwardly recognizable Jewish affect toward their shared doom.
We are told in the Scriptures, “Like a belt clings to the waist of a man, that is how I created the whole House of Israel, to cling to Me.” (Jeremiah 13:11)
We Jews are created to be a certain thing in the world.
God’s “peculiar people/nation.”
There is no escaping it –– but it is possible to miss it, or misuse it.
It never misses us – our identity in the universe both physical and spiritual is on us like a halo of light in a darkened field: “a city on a hill cannot be hidden.” We are God’s city wherever we go: fragments of the destiny embodied by Jerusalem, herself – we declare we are always headed there: hundreds of generations all saying the same thing: we are going to Jerusalem. Hopefully, “next year in Jerusalem.”
God set the holidays in our calendars, ordering Moses to “Say to Israel, these are the mo-e-deem of the Lord, which you are to declare to them as mo-e-dai.”
A mo-ed is a season. It can also mean holiday, implying like the seasons, their cyclical recurrence.
God says, these mo-e-deem (plural of mo-ed) are His.
They are given by Him to us in the form of time-contexted commandments.
Createdness and Context are important for sanity.
Any male or female in the mid-five-foot tall range of height, who might have the ambition to play basketball in the NBA, must face the fact that in general, people born with the natural advantage of height around seven feet are much more likely to be successful in that sphere of endeavor. Createdness creates context to a significant degree.
Who are you? I am a Jew.
Where are you headed? Jerusalem.
It is far easier to navigate through the world if you know both who you are and where you are already going. If you are on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic headed eastward, you may want to go jogging through New York’s Central Park – but it isn’t going to happen. You are leaving Central Park behind you further with every passing moment. It would be a personal favor to you for anyone on that ship who knows reality to tell you about it: to inform you where you are – where you are headed – what you are leaving behind – and why.
“And I will take them, one from a city and two from a family, and bring them back to Zion,” God tells us through the prophets. God is doing the bringing, the taking, the counting, the drawing – God.
Far better, and far easier to embrace the truth.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was described by the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a student of his, as one who saw both the present and future clearly. It was Jabotinsky who declaimed to German and European Jewry during the less virulent antisemitic period in German during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Get out, get out! The ground is burning underneath your feet, and you act as if you do not even smell the smoke!” Unclarity now leads to bewilderment later – and both can be costly conditions.
During this High Holiday Season, our 23rd as a synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in which there are many, many of our Jewish people far removed from their own identities, and certainly far removed from the God and Faith and Scriptures of Israel: it seems a good place to start our Holiday observance with a recognition of what we are during this season of history in which the two-track spiritual and physical “Return to Zion” (Deuteronomy 30:1-6, Ezekiel 36, Hosea 3:4-5) is already well underway, to take stock of reality and re-set our compasses.
We are Jews.
We are Jews born, or Jews-by-Choice.
We are Jews who have been given in our generation a stewardship of a particular truth at present not seen well, in the same way the Andromeda cloud in the sky was not known to be a galaxy until long after the human eye had noticed it – but long deemed a mere nebula (cloud) within our own galaxy, purely because the sheer size of the universe was as yet unknown to us. That truth of which we are stewards is that the New Testament is a necessary part of a whole, healthy Judaism. The Suffering Messiah has already been among us. This truth is belongs at home inside the gates of Judaism ––– and in due time, that will be made clear.
Year by year, as it did in Babylon, Syria, Yemen, Russia, Germany, America, Brazil – everywhere – assimilation claws at us and inexorably seeks to pull away pieces of our identity, our context in history, a piece at a time. Opposing this pattern, we observe and remember as we have been commanded.
We observe Yom Teruah (now called, Rosh HaShanah), sounding the alarm in regard to the annual atonement. We gather on Yom Kippur to pray and re-boot our moral compass with the most serious of focus on eternity, even denying ourselves food and drink. On Sukkot we embrace both the freedom we were given when our slavery was ended, and the truth of the temporary nature of all human experience and existence. On Simchat Torah, we declare the annual cycle of revelation ended, and literally rewind, so as to begin again the cycle of inviting divinely-framed truth to influence our hearts.
And it is stirring to note ––– many Jewish people who never give God, faith, or moral truth a thought all during the year come out of the woodwork to touch base with their deep-core programming, the voice that speaks in them like salmon being pulled upstream ––– and we remember the truth of our createdness: we are Jews.
Better to remember now, and act in accord with the truth of our created nature, than to live in something between negligent and willful ignorance of it ––– and risk the bewilderment of the German World War One veteran, holding up his medals as his Jewish identity is defining his destiny, and saying, “But I am not Jewish – only my grandfather was Jewish.”
If the blood of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel or Leah flows in your veins – it is entirely accurate to say, “I am a Jew.” Not a Half-Jew, Quarter-Jew, Eighth Jew – or any other fraction.
“These are the seasons of the Lord to proclaim to Israel.” the Torah tells us.
And why? Among the foremost reasons is this: “‘So long as the sun and the moon are in the sky and the stars in their courses, so long will Israel be a nation before Me,’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:35-37)
The High Holidays are again upon us. Time to be that nation, once again.
Am Yisrael chai. Od Avinu chai. Od Yeshua chai.
The nation Israel lives on. Our (Heavenly) Father lives on. Yeshua (the Messiah) lives on.
May it be an easy fast and uplifting season for all!
Rabbi Bruce L. Cohen
1 September 2016