Shaya Cohen -


What Does it Mean to Be a Jew?

[Written as an introduction to a book]

Do you ever wonder why Western Civilization – the birthplace of capitalism, industrialism and modern medicine—is one of the most advanced civilizations in the world for technology and innovation? How persecuted religious people who fled England happened to be the people who brought their ideas for innovation and risk-taking to the United States? And how the seeds they planted in the U.S. have supported our becoming the world’s leader almost since our inception? There are reasons for these accomplishments.

This country was founded by people who wanted to escape oppression and strike out on their own for religious freedom. From the start, we were guided by principles that were used to create a civilization that was entirely new. Those principles promoted the ideas of religious freedom (and with it, tolerance), independence and creativity. We believed from the start in possibilities and opportunity. The Founders crafted our government based on ancient texts, but particularly on Judeo-Christian principles and the Jewish Bible—the same Bible that teaches us that we are free agents with divine spirits, created in the image of G-d. And because G-d creates, we know that we have the power to create, and are commanded to be creative beings.

If you are reading this, the idea of creation speaks to you specifically and to your own life. That’s why this is about you.

You have decided, for your own reasons, to take the journey of a lifetime. You may be viewing it with trepidation, excitement and curiosity, but you’ve decided to at least look into the life-changing potential that this trip offers.

The personalities in the Torah are a mixed bunch: they are heroes and villains; they are generous and greedy; they are risk-takers and reluctant to join in. At first, you may think you know them, but you will discover that they have much more depth and complexity than you ever imagined. You will realize that they are not strangers at all, but that you are connected to each and every one of them in some way.

The guidebook we will use on this expedition is thousands of years old and has stood the test of time. It will provide you with rules to live by, profound spiritual inspiration, and opportunities for growth. The degree to which you decide to dive in to this experience will be up to you.

By now, you likely realize that I am describing Torah and the Jewish people. Whether you are an observant Jew, a fallen-away Jew, a skeptical Jew or a Jew hungry for a deeply spiritual life, you have come to the right place.

For some, Judaism is something of a tribal faith, joined by accident of birth or a mutual attraction to bagels and lox (!) For others, Judaism is far more rigorous and demanding. Nevertheless, this book contains much that will surprise every reader and all Jews are welcome here; questions and curiosity are encouraged, as we explore what it all means.

We will look at this query, “what does it mean to be a Jew?” through a number of stops on our journey: asking questions; being part of something bigger; timeless stories; our role in improving the world; and what it means to be holy.

Asking Questions, Challenging Hashem

Some religious traditions discourage their faithful from asking questions. Not only does Judaism encourage us to ask questions, but we even see our forefathers arguing with Hashem!

Since we are Jews, it is the critics, and not the lazy, who dominate the conversation. Nobody wants to think of themselves as being in the wrong, or as being merely weak: it is much “stronger” to make a principled argument.

And so, for the critics, it is not enough to merely say that we should follow the laws of keeping kosher, for the reason given by so many devout Jews, “because the Torah and our Sages say so.” After all, we are a thinking people, and thinking leads to critical thinking. And, arguments like “Hashem says so” aside, it seemingly makes no sense that we are allowed to eat a grasshopper, but not a hare; a cow, but not a pig.

As a result, Jews throughout time have followed the Torah by picking and choosing their commandments, or deciding not to follow the Torah at all. Korach who rebelled against Moshe’s leadership made these arguments, as did Jesus’ followers, and so have thousands of years of very intelligent critics and independent thinkers up to the present day. So today’s critics are in very good company.

The critics are not necessarily wrong. At least, they are not wrong to ask. We are meant to ask questions. Following in the footsteps of our forefathers, we Jews are meant to ask questions—and demand answers—not only of ourselves but also of Hashem Himself. Being Jewish means more than just being carried along by the social and traditional forces that envelop and propel us. It means choosing one’s own path in life. And Jews of every stripe should be as self-aware of their choices as possible. That means asking the Big Questions, even arguing with Hashem.

Unfortunately our modern world is so very capable and technologically advanced that it is hard to credit the possibility, or even the probability, that most people, most of the time, remain as rudimentary in their thinking as were our pagan ancestors. I would go so far as to suggest that the vast majority of people are, when it comes to making sense of the world, as simple-minded as those island primitives who worshipped American soldiers because they came bearing goodies.

It is well worth mentioning that this dichotomy between a world enslaved to primitive thinking and a world in which mankind tries to aspire to greater meaning and accomplishments is by no means a modern creation. This dichotomy is at the heart of the Exodus from Egypt.

Egypt was the home of nature-worship. Its idols were the things these ancient scientists could touch and feel – the sun, the Nile… every physical force was its own deity in some way or another. All mankind had to do was to live in harmony with nature, and life would be predictable and safe. It would also, of course, be as meaningful as the lives of any animal that lives in harmony with nature. Which is to say, entirely without any meaning at all.

Torah Judaism was so enormously different in qualitative ways than other religions that even its adherents had (and still do have!) a hard time wrapping their heads around what it all means. Judaism has no shortage of laws or rules or regulations – but they are all either practical (as in matters of society and law), or symbolic, to show us how to connect with Hashem and each other, to create holiness. Instead of living in harmony with nature, Hashem, in the Ten Plagues, shows His superiority over the simple-minded ancient Egyptian scientist who sees only Nature, and not its creator, as the measurable forces in this world. The Torah keeps telling us, from beginning to end, that we have Free Will: there is no destiny unless we believe it to be there. Nature is as false and uncaring a god as were the logistics personnel who brought food into Pacific islands.

What primitive thinkers of every kind fail to understand in their guts is that externalizing our understanding of the world to Mother Earth or Fate or Destiny or superheroes or the Nanny State is outsourcing our own lives. When we do that, we are not really alive, and our lives are no more valuable, in the scheme of things, than the lives of any animals on this planet. Everything that lives will die; the question is whether or not we make our lives matter, whether we live by the 6 days of physical creation (Egypt), or the 7 days of creation that includes our Creator (static monotheism), or the 8 days that includes mankind’s contributions to the world, our partnership with Hashem in improving the world around us.

We experience these debates, within ourselves and with Hashem. When Hashem decided to destroy Sdom, and told Avraham his plans, Avraham not only argued with him, but tried to negotiate with him. (You probably know that Hashem won that argument, though Avraham certainly gained ground.) When Hashem asked Moshe to lead the Jewish people from Egypt, Moshe refused to do it, pleading a speech defect; Moshe said Hashem should choose someone else to do the job. Finally Hashem became angry and told Moshe that his brother, Aharon (whom Moshe loved) would speak on Moshe’s behalf. At Mt. Sinai, after the Jewish people built the golden calf, Hashem was prepared to destroy them, but Moshe argued with Him and convinced Him not to kill the people.

Hashem states going forward: Before your entire people I shall make distinctions [wonders]. Except that the Hebrew is not “before,” or lifnei, it is neged, which means “opposed.” This verse does not only say that Hashem will make wonders in our future, but it says that these wonders will come about as a result of conflict between Hashem and us. The immediate parallel text is the creation of Chavah, Eve: she is created as a helpmate to oppose Adam. Man needs a wife who helps and opposes, testing, questioning, and pushing. There is not always domestic bliss in the Torah. Indeed, domestic bliss might even be a sign of a dysfunctional relationship!

The Torah tells us that in the wake of the sin with the golden calf, Hashem recognized that the Jewish people were not going to take Hashem’s laws, behave perfectly, and live happily ever after. Hashem pushes us, and we push back. Hashem throws challenges in our path, and we pray, and question, and even sometimes rage at Him. We rebel and go off the path: as a nation we never fully break loose, and yet we do not fully submit to His will either.

The verse ends with, “. . . and the entire people among whom you are will see the work of Hashem” This verse cannot apply to our time in the wilderness, of course, for the Jews were not living among other nations. This prophetic verse is about the thousands of years of Jewish exile, and of Jewish existence today among the nations of the world. It is the Jewish people who are the miracles and wonders that show Hashem’s greatness—not because we are perfect servants of the Creator of the world, but because we are a difficult and obstinate people, always questioning and pushing back, and even sinning. Marx and Freud may have been self-hating Jews, but these examples only prove the rule, as we can now translate the verse: “In opposition to your entire people, I will make wonders.” A very great many of the Jews who changed the world were not obedient servants of Hashem, but they were Jews nonetheless. Even rebellious Jews, in opposition to Hashem, could and did create wonders.

The referenced verse turns the utopian vision of a “happily ever after” on its head: great things will come about as the direct result of the creative tension, the wrestling match, between Hashem and his people. This verse is forecasting that the Jewish people will sin. Hashem, after the destruction of the first tablets at Mt. Sinai, now accepts this ingrained facet of the Jewish personality. And He will oppose us, and quarrel with us. The product of this oppositional engagement will be wonders that will make the Exodus from Egypt pale in comparison. Jews and Hashem will tussle throughout history, and as a result of that continued opposition, we produce great miracles—in every creative endeavor, including science, technology, politics and human relationships.

Whether through partnership with Hashem or in opposition to Him, we are making choices, exercising our free will. Our decisions, of course, are often made in ignorance – people make choices for all kinds of reasons that may not be rational or well-informed. Nevertheless, as Jews, it seems reasonable that before we choose not to follow Hashem’s suggestion, that we at least familiarize ourselves with the choices in the first place. Free will without knowledge is little more than instinct, after all. Even Adam and Chavah heard the arguments of the snake before deciding to eat the forbidden fruit! And what they heard led them to choose to disobey Hashem’s command!

Hashem told Adam and Chavah not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They knew that with the fruit came knowledge and a divine power to create new things. Before they ate the fruit, Adam had named the animals. But once Chavah arrived, the pair of them stopped creating at all! And among the many revealed dualisms would be Good and Evil, and endless decisions between which to choose. In other words, the one choice that they made led all of humanity into a world where we are confronted with decisions every waking moment.

Eating from the fruit triggered the entry of Adam and Chavah into the world we inhabit today. It is a pre-existing condition of our existence that we can—and must—make choices.

Just as Adam and Chavah had to make a choice, Hashem told the Jewish people to leave Egypt, so they were faced with a simple decision: do we stay or do we go? The midrash tells us that only a minority of Jews chose to leave. The rest stayed in Egypt. Just as Adam and Chavah could have done, the Jews remaining in Egypt chose the path of least resistance, the path where they would no longer have to make choices at all.

The decision for Adam and Chavah was not merely whether they should pursue a new world—they were well aware that Hashem had told them not to eat the fruit. The question was whether to listen to Hashem or not. They chose to rebel. Many generations later, the Jewish people in Egypt were faced with the very same choice, and the actions of the minority who left were a corrective act, a tikkun, for the choice of Adam and Chavah, because the Jews who left Egypt chose to follow Hashem’s command, while Adam and Chavah did not.

To some extent, Judaism is about being willing to ask questions – and being willing to find different answers than other people. There is no more a universal “right answer” to a deeply personal question than there is a universally ideal husband or wife. But the key to finding good answers is to keep asking questions!

It is the asking, the yearning to know and understand deeply, that is at the heart of each thinking Jew.

All of these stories, through events and people, relate great truths: that we can make choices between good and evil; how we connect spiritually with Hashem; whether we listen to Hashem; and the power of the choices we make in life, as well as many other lessons I haven’t discussed here. So the stories are not just stories: they are guidelines, signposts, examples and at the deepest level, spiritual messages for us to integrate into our lives and assist us in developing our understanding of what it means to be a Jew and what our role is in the world.

So whatever your beliefs and attitudes about Judaism, Hashem expects us, wants us, to interact with Him. Our forefathers challenged Him: and we, in our prayer, can also call out to him in our questioning, in our sorrow, in our confusion. Practicing Jews study Torah and much of the Written and Oral Torah ask and answer (with many options to choose from) about the reasons behind the commandments and the actions of the people in the Torah. For now, it is an opportunity for you to put aside judgments, criticisms and disappointments, of Judaism and yourself, and present those questions that you wish to be answered. And if you persevere and listen closely, answers will come to you.

Being Part of Something Bigger

It’s interesting that early on, our forefathers seemed to want to live together, but none of them actually did.[1] And there was no complaint; they did not seem unhappy, nor consider it untoward that once children discovered their independence–when Avraham discovered Hashem, when Yitzchok survived the Akeidoh (Avraham’s attempt to sacrifice him), and when Yaakov left Israel, knowing he might never see his father again, they all acted willingly.

But this practice changed with Yaakov. While he may not have been interested in living with his parents, Yaakov certainly wanted to live with his children, and his children reciprocated. By Yaakov’s sunset years, the family united in one place. Once Yaakov and his sons developed these types of relationships, they were ready to grow into a nation.

I think that there is a progression of these relationships within Genesis that mirrors the book as a whole: by the end of the book, the older generation is clearly investing their own selves and even extending the relationship that they have with Hashem, with the younger generation. Women do it first, but the men get there a generation later – and we know children need both parents to be involved.

When fathers started spiritually investing in their children, it became possible for people to move forward, from generation to generation. Building upon the previous generation is the most essential building block for a changing civilization – and more than this, the essential ingredient for historical progression.

From this point on, the pattern is set, and the Jewish nation can gestate in Egypt and be born in the splitting of the waters of the Red Sea. All of the trends that advanced in Genesis have reached a level of maturity wherein it is possible to grow and nurture a nation, a nation ready to institutionalize these lessons and grow lasting and binding relationships with each other and with Hashem.

They needed to see themselves as the nation of Israel, a nation of love, a nation where the fathers and sons loved one another, and wanted to be near each other, and where the people developed bonds across families, around the world, and to Hashem.

Being part of something bigger is more than connecting between people: it also means connecting with ourselves, with our divinely-gifted souls. We are supposed to be driven by our spiritual hunger, our attraction to energy in all its forms.[2]

In addition, we are called to take responsibility for our lives, not be victims of it. For instance, in the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob convinced Esau to sell his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of soup. Even later, Jacob convinced their father, Yitzchak, that he was Esau (due to his father’s poor eyesight) and Yitzchak gave Jacob a special blessing. Later, when Esau realized the loss he had brought on himself, he saw himself as a victim, and cried out to his father; at that moment he changes from the man of action to the man who has been wronged, who wallows in the injustice of it all. Esau becomes passive, resentfully complaining that his brother had done him wrong. Oblivious to the bigger picture, Esau never tries to reconnect with Hashem, and even his half-steps to reconcile with his father (by taking on a non-Canaanite wife) do not manage to close the gap. Esau has assimilated with the peoples around him. He becomes a victim in his own mind, to avoid responsibility for his own actions, and conceding to the circumstances in which he finds himself.

In the eyes of his father, Esau has been transformed. Judaism must be carried by those who are proactive, who boldly do what they think is right – even when they might well be wrong! And that person was Yaakov, who seized the moment, even if he did it in error. Esau, by contrast, quit. And then he whined about it.

Esau’s statement “he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” also tells Yitzchak something very important indeed: that Yaakov craves a relationship not only with his father, but has, for years, craved that relationship with Hashem! This story tells us that we must be forthright and responsible in our relationships with each other, as well as in pursuing our relationship with Hashem.

And although the Torah describes man as having been made from Hashem’s own spirit, mankind seems bent on forgetting it or is blissfully unaware of it. Across the world most people don’t realize their connection to Hashem; even in the West, secularists insist on thinking of man as merely another animal. We have a soul, but it is only active, if and when we seek it.

As the Torah relates, before Avraham, mankind kept forgetting that Hashem even existed. The Jewish tribe managed to keep a flame alight, but it failed to convert or otherwise improve the rest of the world. The Torah tells us of a progression – a necessary one – to a nation capable of serving as a light unto the rest of the nations. And that progression came with the understanding and acceptance of the idea that Hashem lives AMONG the Jewish people – the ever-present reminder of the divine presence that people somehow lose track of in their everyday lives. A simple but profound way to understand Hashem living among us is with the building of the sukkah.

A sukkah is a temporary hut, built for an 8 day festival that comes after Yom Kippur. A sukkah is, itself, by definition a temporary structure, and so it is constructed quite poorly. Sukkahs are also highly individualistic. They come in a vast range of shapes and sizes, with seemingly-infinite customization, all within the letter and spirit of the Law. In this, Sukkahs reflect the personal preferences and aesthetics of their makers. Each family makes its own Sukkah, as a proxy for the way in which we choose to beautify the commandment and our relationship with Hashem.

And yet, these buildings are fragile. They cannot stand up to nature, or much (if any) external abuse, because (as required by Jewish Law) their roofs can offer little or no integral resistance to the forces around them. Yet we can look up through those roofs and invite Hashem to be present with us in our humble abodes.

So, too, the Jewish people can be seen as fragile. Outside of Israel, Jews have not effectively defended themselves in thousands of years. We seemingly have no real resistance to anti-semitism, the forces of assimilation, the allures of our host countries and cultures. And still, every year, we, like our sukkahs, stand up once again. We keep coming back.

When we rely on buildings, we decay. When we connect with living and dynamic ideas, then we remain capable of creative thought and growth. Judaism has certainly changed and adapted, but it has always sought to do so while remaining within the letter of the law. Like our Sukkahs, we certainly bend and flex and sometimes blow completely over. But we’ll keep rebuilding our sukkahs every year, once again demonstrating our belief that it is each person’s personal connection with Hashem, as fragile and mortal as it is, that matters above all. The hardiest institutions are not made of bricks-and-mortar; they are made of our constantly renewed love and service.

Once we move forward and realize we can take charge of our lives and are free to relate to Hashem, the formal way Hashem reminds us of His presence within the Jewish people, within the world, and within each soul, is the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, that we are commanded to make. The Tabernacle exists to not only remind us that Hashem is there, but also to serve as a reminder of why WE are here! The Mishkan became a key to accessing and using our divinely-inspired souls for good.

Like the five curtains on each side of the Mishkan, each curtain had a breadth of four amos: the same dimension as one human being! So we know where Hashem resides today: within the four corners of those who seek to have a relationship with him. Hashem is inside us, as and when we choose to connect with him. And the awareness of Hashem within us is a common bond that we share with every other Jew.

In spite of the call to invite Hashem into our lives, and our opportunities to do so, we become distracted by the dilemmas of our everyday lives. We complain—a lot. Letting life happen to you is something people who suffer silently do quite well. If you believe in the fates or the stars or other beyond-our-control influences that dictate our lives, then complaining serves no function whatsoever. This goes quite some distance toward explaining why billions of people in places like India and China and Africa whose faith is fate and quietly accepting their lots in life. Apathy is worse than kvetching.

But complaining may be a necessary step forward in growing up – it is a rejection of the status quo, and a desire to improve one’s lot in life. In other words, not being happy with the cards that have been dealt you is the first step in learning how to take charge of your own life.

Being part of something bigger does not mean that we are meant to be like ants in a colony; Judaism is all about individuality. Every person has his or her own story. We are not meant to be like everyone else – or even any other single person! These opportunities to connect with Hashem and each other are personal and unique. The common thread for Jews is that the Torah shows us the way, by explaining what it all means and by helping us discern the moral path.

Timeless Stories

We began this booklet with the comment, “This book is about you.” We made this statement because the stories in Torah show us people who are heroic, determined, and courageous—in other words they are in some ways greater than each of us individually, but they are also just like us: wanting love, desiring justice, opportunities, success, and perhaps most importantly, a relationship with Hashem.

When we first read the stories of Torah, it’s easy to take them at face value, perhaps unintentionally ignoring or skimming over the reasons for actions and behaviors of those in the stories. We may not have the tools to read beyond the obvious, to meditate on their meaning or determine the underlying messages. Much is lost when we assume we understand Torah only from within our modern context. We are limited by sometimes reading the Torah as if it were a lightweight work to be skimmed cursorily. But if we are willing to take a little more time, we can dive deeper. Because these stories and their players have much to teach us about what it means to be a Jew.

Let’s take an example of diving deeper, of where the “obvious” answers are either more complex or indeed, simply wrong: Exodus from Egypt.

The story of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt is a fundamental story of slavery and freedom in Judaism. In many ways, this story has much more to teach us than these simple events; it tells us ways that Hashem calls us to live our lives, what it means to be free and creative human beings. We annually relive the Exodus from Egypt, family by family, year after year – and we have been doing it for well over 3,000 years! Pesach is the annual touchstone for the Jewish people, the single most observed festival of every living Jew.

When we study the story of the 400 years in Egypt, we realize the Jews had become accustomed to much of the Egyptian culture. They were surrounded by idol worship, imbued with the ideas of fatalism and victimization, believing that they had no choice but to live within the Egyptian culture as slaves. So when Hashem commanded them to leave Egypt, even accepting this choice seemed impossible. Egypt had accustomed them to accepting life as it was, not to expanding their world and obeying the words of Hashem. Whether the Jews chose to stay or leave, they realized the consequences of their choices: they were free to choose.

And yet, as my sons argued during the Seder, it seems that the Jewish people, for over 3000 years, have been getting a basic fact about our slavery in Egypt wrong. And we have done it because, although Jews are incredible change agents everywhere we go, we fall short when it comes to changing ourselves, and especially our victimhood culture.

Who enslaved the Jews? It is a simple, patently foolish question. The Egyptians did, of course. Everyone knows that! The Haggadah tells us so. We were innocent victims, oppressed by a stronger nation that believed that Might Makes Right.

But my sons pointed out that this “obvious” answer is entirely unsupported by the Torah itself. Not only does it lack support, but the Torah gives us another explanation entirely. Nowhere does it say that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews. Sure, they assigned us taskmasters, ramped up the demands, and tried to kill our newborns. But the Egyptians did not enslave us in the first place.

Here’s the punchline: The Jews enslaved themselves.

We study the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, and after their father, Jacob, died, the brothers were panicked, and they begged for Joseph’s forgiveness. But they also went one step too far:

“[Joseph’s brothers] went and fell down before his face, and they said “Behold we are your servants.” (Gen. 50:18) [the Hebrew word for “servant” and “slave” are identical]

The Jewish people enslaved themselves to the senior administrator of the kingdom of Egypt. And they did so for reasons that are entirely familiar to frustrated modern libertarians: fearful in the face of volatile uncertainty, they opted to restrain their freedoms in exchange for a predictable future.

What does Joseph say in response? He does not say “On the contrary! You are free men!” He does not avow the declaration in any way. Instead, his response is the same as that of every well-meaning government employee ever since:

“Have no fear… I will sustain you and your little ones.” (Gen. 50:19,21)

In other words, Joseph could be trusted, because he was an angel. And we don’t need to worry about our freedoms when we are governed by angels. Alas, as James Madison put it, “If angels were to govern men, [no] controls on government would be necessary.” Joseph may have been a wonderful man; but the enslavement and welfare dependence of the Jewish people, once the first step down that slippery slope had been taken, had an almost-unavoidable conclusion: the complete elimination of the Jewish people. The road to serfdom is the easy path and it is almost always a one-way trip. Only direct divine intervention saved us just before the end.

But even though Hashem delivered us from Egypt, we never quite grew out of the classic Jewish slave-and-ghetto mentality. Like Joseph’s brothers, we are too quick to shed the robes of freedom when offered the chance to wallow in perpetual victimhood, too quick to prefer dependable servitude over unpredictable–risky–freedom. By surrendering ourselves to Joseph, we opened the door to walking away from independence and free will, and we became capable only of biological multiplication and hard labor for a capricious overlord.

But we must never forget: we did this to ourselves. And while Hashem took us out of Egypt, something for which there is no limit to the gratitude we should show, He did not do it just because He wanted us to be grateful: He did it so that we could make our lives productive and creative, to partner with Hashem, to ignite and spread holiness throughout the world.

And we work hard at it, handicapped because too rarely do we remember that we have to also heal ourselves, to realize that we are almost always our own worst enemies. External threats to the Jewish people, in Egypt and throughout time, are rarely diseases in their own right: they are symptoms of our own cowardice, unwillingness to tackle the flaws in ourselves and in the world for which we were given responsibility.

In order to grow, to become better and more complete people, we have to conquer our fears. In order to spread freedom, we need people to seek bravery, to eschew “safety.” We must stop blaming other people, and playing the Victim Identity Game. In order to grow relationships and holiness with mankind and with Hashem, we need to confront the terrifying insecurities that define our human existence.

We can learn other lessons from that time of exile. In one sense, this has been about internal development: maybe – just maybe – Hashem exiled us from our land so that we would be forced to grow. And grow we have! The number of texts that Jews produced (and preserved) from before the destruction of the Temple was a very, very small fraction (much less than 1%) of the creative work that has been produced since then, in the gigabytes and gigabytes of Jewish texts on law and thought.

And our growth has come in connection with others: Judaism “cast upon the waters” may have achieved far more than we could have ever done had we remained in one country, in one environment. Jewish contributions to innovation and creativity in every manner of human endeavor speaks for itself, but it is more than just, “Did you know that a Jewish person invented X?”

Jews do not seek to convert others to Judaism, but “merely” to inspire other people to be creative and productive in their own ways. Leadership is good, but partnership is good, too. So is merely identifying and applauding all the good things that others do; showing appreciation goes a long way toward overcoming the natural envies and fears that makes it harder for people to take their own risks.

That connection can be (and usually should be) through personal connections, through conversations. In addition to the commandments and the testimonies and the statutes, we Jews are always enjoined to push forward – to engage with each other and with Hashem and with the world around us. And we must always seek to create positive things, things that, like light itself, had never existed before. The Torah is commanding us to be imitation dei, to imitate our Creator by creating in turn, and connecting with the world.

Perhaps Jews are out here in the world because one cannot be “a light unto the nations” from faraway shores; we need to constantly interact and work with everyone, to help people find their own productive ways to contribute to the world around them: “what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.”

Just like the preservation of freedom, conquest over fear is a never-ending battle. The shared reward is the sweetest thing of all: satisfaction that we have not squandered the opportunities that lie before us, that we have lived our lives to the fullest.

That is what the Exodus from Egypt has to teach us: the lessons go far beyond the obvious.

Similarly, critics of the Torah often wonder at a Hashem who sometimes commands the obliteration of an entire people, or even directly causes the destruction of a city. Here is one of the most famous examples – and why it matters: S’dom and Amorrah (Sodom and Gamorah).

The cities of S’dom and Amorrah were not hostile to guests as a matter of custom: they institutionalized the practice, making it illegal for anyone to care for a stranger. While this institutionalization may have been a reaction to Avraham’s hospitality to strangers, it also clearly showed that the society of S’dom had dug in its heels. S’dom was not destroyed just because it was wicked: it was destroyed because it signaled its complete and utter unwillingness to even consider spiritual growth. In other words, once S’dom sealed its wickedness into law, by then the divine logic applied to them as it had at both Babel and the Flood (and years later with Nineveh), and there was no longer any reason for the city to continue to exist. It was incapable of producing goodness then or in the future.

So when Avraham pleaded for the city to be saved if there were at least ten righteous men in the city, he made a very specific argument: that even institutional evil could be overcome if there are enough good people. And Hashem even agreed with Avraham’s principle argument, so the question was simpler: how many people does it take to fix a society?

When a society absolutely refused to improve itself, as S’dom did, it would only take ten people to have a chance to redeem it. But Avraham was not born into such a world. His world was one in which there was plenty of evil, but it was not eternally preserved in the laws of societies. In a society that is organized along evil lines, it took ten men for there to be any hope of reform. But in a world where most people just did what was right in their own eyes, acting with simple selfishness, then a single holy couple, such as Avraham and Sarah, could be (and clearly were) a light unto the nations.

The lesson of S’dom came from a time when Hashem directly intervened in the world – a time when Avraham represented one family in the entire world. But after the Torah was given, the responsibility was handed to the Jewish people: we, as Hashem’s only emissaries in this world, are directly responsible for combating evil.

How are we doing at selecting the good, at transforming bad societies and cultures to better ones? Ultimately this is not just a national or group effort: it always comes down to the individual.

When we look at our own society and its morality (or lack thereof), what do we see? What is our role in being a part of a society that is lacking morality? Do we yield to others’ expectations? Do we try to maintain our own beliefs under the pressure to fit in with everyone else? And what are the ways we can take those steps? Some of those answers live in Torah, with Hashem and the Jewish people, as we try to fulfill our mission to bring light and justice to the world.

What It Means to be Holy

We live in a world where the mundane is elevated: movie stars, fashion, glamour, ultimate fighting, race car driving, fancy cars, bigger houses and activities and experiences that set us apart from everyone else. The more daring, exciting and extreme a pursuit is, the more we admire it. And the more we want of it.

But at some point we realize the emptiness of those activities, how excitement is transient and true fulfillment is missing. And so we may not be able to name what we seek. But I – and the Torah – would call it holiness.

So what is holiness? Where does holiness fit into this world? And why do we desire it? We can study the Tabernacle/Mishkan with its four primary components: the Menorah, the Altar, the Show-bread, and the Ark: I believe they represent the four forms of holiness, of connection to Hashem:

Menorah: the menorah is a reminder to us of the burning bush (the first time holiness is named), as well as a reminder of light (of every kind – truth, revelation, clarity, etc.).

Altar: When sacrifices were offered to Hashem on the altar, man showed appreciation to Hashem, connecting heaven and earth. It was a way of elevating the physical into the spiritual plane, a holy act. The altar represents our role in improving the world by infusing everyday items and even trivial rituals with the transcendent and beautiful.

Show-bread: The showbread represented the partnership between man and Hashem in sustaining life, and in creating new things, manifestations of the holy. The Show-bread is today showcased by man’s incredible technological achievements.

Ark: The ark housed the tablets of the commandments, and it was crowned by male and female angels, showing the love between man and Hashem, as well as man and woman.

To the extent that we internalize these aspects of holiness (Light, Elevation, Partnership/Creation, and Love), Hashem dwells within us.

This view of the Tabeneracle is that it, like the Torah, is not descriptive: it is prescriptive. We are to make our lives into lights, elevating ourselves and the world around us, and partnering with Hashem in creating new things to sustain life. If we do those things, then in the Holy-of-Holies, we are able to properly and fully love Hashem and each other.

In a sense the Ark (and the love embodied in it) is the result of a life devoted to the other aspects of holiness, in the same way that happiness is not something one achieves by directly seeking it, but is rather the byproduct of a life well spent. Judaism does not believe that there are shortcuts to this kind of love: one must actively choose to engage in spiritual growth in order to enjoy the resulting relationship with Hashem.

Holiness is antithetical to behaving like an animal. We are supposed to be connected to the earth and our animal passions, but we must be the master of these desires, not the servant.

Holiness is not achieved easily, of course. For some holy acts, we must first separate from impurity, then undergo ritual purification, and then elevate the material toward the spiritual. All the laws of purity and impurity are there to help us achieve holiness. Holiness is the combination of heaven and earth, and so we must be anchored in the waters of the earth, the mikvah (ritual bath), before we can elevate ourselves into the spiritual realm to seek holiness. This definition of holiness explains why Moshe had to remove his shoes at his encounter with Hashem: he would be stepping on holy ground, and so he was to connect with the earth in order to speak with Hashem.

But beyond the identification of that which is holy, the Torah tells us of another sub-category of holy things: that which we call, using the spoken word, “holy.” Words are powerful—Hashem created the world with the spoken word alone. And we have the power to create holiness just by naming something as holy. We make things holy by declaring them to be holy, just as we declare the Shabbos holy when we make Kiddush (bless the wine) on Friday night. When we use our own bodies and souls to utter Hashem’s name, then we can achieve tremendous heights of k’dushoh (holiness)—and we can just as easily profane His name.

What, then, does “unholy” mean? Unholy does not mean defiled; instead the opposite of holy is the word in Hebrew, chol. This word is often defined as common or mundane, but it actually means what came first. Indeed, chol is the world the way Hashem made it, because nature is unfeeling, unthinking, and has its own rules. Nature, the way the world was created, is essentially a very large and complex automaton. And that automaton, a universe in which neither Hashem nor man is involved, does not fulfill any useful–holy—function, because it is incapable of improvement by itself. It merely is.

And more than this: chol is the divided state, the way the world was created on the second day, the world we are meant to heal.

The Torah tells us that we are forbidden to make unnecessary separations in the world, since holiness comes from healing separations, not creating them. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “For Jews, holiness lies not in the way the world is, but in the way it ought to be.” The way the world is, is chol.

In order for chol to be improved, it needs the addition of creativity, the application of Hashem’s creative powers, expressed directly from Hashem—or even better, through a combination of Hashem and man.

So the above defines the absence of holiness, and how we can create holiness, as the co-existence of heaven and earth, of matter and energy, of man’s body and soul and, importantly, man and woman. When we bring opposites together and still promote spirituality in that act, then we have created holiness on earth. This might explain why we say that Hashem Himself is holy!

On the face of it, Hashem is pure spirituality, the opposite of the limited and finite physical world. And this is so—except that we cannot ignore the power of perceptions. We call Hashem holy because in every respect we can perceive, Hashem is connected to us. We are the combinations of the dust, and life in which Hashem’s spirit resides. And so we don’t relate to Hashem in the purely ethereal realm that we cannot even imagine. We relate to Hashem on this earth, in his manifestations in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and within human beings.

Among all of these contributions, it is when we actively choose to find ways to elevate the physical into the spiritual plane, that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence in the world.

Improving the World

It isn’t enough to be a good person or a good Jew. We are called to reach out to the world, to be a light among the nations, to be an example of the many ideas for which we stand. We have many ways to carry out these actions, whether they are with our friends and families, our communities, our country, or the world. To take these actions, we must continually be improving ourselves. The underlying question for all Jews throughout all of our history has always been whether we choose to grow or not. And by “grow,” I mean taking our corporeal existence and aiming upward, always seeking to improve. Ideally, it is our mission to complete the creation of the world by healing the divisions that Hashem created when he separated the waters above and below.

In our own world, quite a few people think that the purpose of life is to be comfortable or stress-free. They aim to play things safe whenever possible. And for excitement, they seek experiences: sight-seeing, exotic cuisine, extramarital relationships, endless television, and even video games. These experiences are things that happen to us, but they do not necessarily change us, nor do they improve the world around us.

The things we accomplish with our lives are much, much more important than our experiences. A wedding is nice, but the experience of a wedding falls away in comparison to the accomplishment of a good marriage. So the one-time experiences of the Jewish people that we constantly remind ourselves of (the Exodus and receiving the Torah) are there to remind us of the accomplishments of Hashem, and to help to guide and direct our thoughts, words and deeds to His service.

Receiving of the Torah at Sinai was a seminal moment, but the challenge to us is not remembering it (after all, we deliberately “lost” the location of the mountain), but bringing the Torah “back into our tents,” incorporating the Torah into our lives. Receiving the Torah required little personal development, but using the Torah to grow and improve ourselves and our world, to make something of our opportunities, is the essence of our purpose in this life.

An example of embracing this mission to improve the world is near the end of Yom Kippur; we have made our peace with our fellow man, and we have made our peace with Hashem. United in prayer, we have also formed a union with all our fellow Jews. Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur is when we begin to prepare to exit the national cocoon and connect with our individuality. At this time we have to recognize that it is not enough that we do mitzvahs and merely go through life by putting one foot in front of the other. We must consciously decide that we are going to bend our will towards serving the Creator by focusing all of our individual energies on our unique and holy potential to make the world a better place. It is the time for us to decide to harness our creative powers at both ends of the spectrum—from the choice of what we do with our reproductive talents to the choice of what we do with our mental talents—in our individually unique and beautiful service to Hashem.

“But,” I hear you saying, “what about Hashem’s will? Aren’t things preordained?”

The Torah tells us they are not! Yet we have customs that suggest otherwise. Take, for example, the fast of Tisha B’Av that commemorates the destruction of both the First Temple and Second Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred about 655 years apart, but on the same Hebrew calendar date.) During those days, we mourn and many avoid engaging in normal levels of business. It seems like an inauspicious date, somehow a date that is fated to be bad luck for Jews.

Is that so? I ask this because I am reminded of the opinions of Rabbi Yochanan and Rav, that there is no mazal (luck) in Israel. Astrology, according to these opinions, is only for the non-Jewish world. We Jews are to look to Hashem for favor and blessings, and we do that by seeking and growing a relationship with our Creator, not by falling into astrology and superstition.

One might well counter, of course, that given the historical prevalence of tragedy on and around the Jewish date of the Ninth of Av, the time seems to be somehow unlucky, a time when Hashem has reserved His favor or otherwise hidden His face from us.

But here’s the problem with the argument that Hashem caused all these events to happen: Hashem did not create the Ninth of Av: we did. It was the Jewish people, in the episode of the spies, who lost their nerve and lost their willingness to appreciate that our mission in this world is not just to be molly-coddled by Hashem in the wilderness, but to go out and bravely step up as Hashem’s partners in this world. We are responsible for combating evil wherever we find it and promoting holiness at every opportunity. And when we failed to do it, we paid the price.

The Ninth of Av is a time to connect with our history, to understand what has gone so tragically wrong in our past, and what we can do to make the future brighter. We can focus on how best to improve and grow ourselves and the world around us. We are here to build and grow and soar, without fear that our goals might falter, without the fear that comes with accepting that there is only One Hashem and that He is not found in the forces of nature, and without ever forgetting that each person contains a divine spark, and is to be accorded love and respect on that basis alone.

Every tragedy in the world since then has been one that Hashem has allowed – not because Hashem is evil, but because He endowed all of humanity with free choice and the responsibility to make good choices. Pestilence and destruction and evil in this world are our responsibility. The Ninth of Av (and the days preceding it) are not to find an opportunity to wallow in loss, but to realize that we must do better, that we must right the wrongs of the past, by stepping up to our responsibilities as Hashem’s partners in improving this world. We are not supposed to be passive actors; on the contrary!

Seen in this light, the fact that so many events happened on the same day are not meant to teach us that the beginning of the month of Av is a time of misfortune. Each tragedy is on the same date to reinforce, event by event, a lesson that we continue to stubbornly resist: we are not at liberty to shuck the immense responsibility riding on our shoulders. We are Hashem’s people, and that means we must summon the courage to act like it: we must partner with Hashem to improve the world.

Later on, in our fourth booklet, I will discuss how you can apply your creative talents, even in the simplest ways, to improve the world.

The Torah tells us that we are not animals, we have free will, and we have (for a limited time only!) creative power from Hashem. Hashem created an imperfect world. But before He rested, He gave it the means to repair itself: mankind. We are all commanded to choose whether (and how) to improve nature: to bring light into darkness, to spiritually elevate the physical, to choose relationships and love. The Torah gives us the canvas and the paints, and at every moment, the choices are open to us.

These ideas are not meant to be a comprehensive description of what it means to be a Jew, but they are some of the most important aspects of leading a Jewish life, and can provide much of life’s meaning. We are not only part of a family, a community, a country: we are part of a religion and tradition, whose roots are 3,000 years old. We not only can practice the religion, but we are never separate from it. Even when we don’t practice it or relate closely to Hashem, Hashem is always with us for us to experience, love and serve. He delights in our relationship with Him, even when we lose our way. And he’s always available to re-connect actively with us.

Hashem is also our partner. He takes an interest in us, expects us to nurture the relationship so that He may reciprocate and connect with us. He welcomes, even expects our questions, anticipates our willfulness and confusion, and if we are patient and open, He will remind us that He is always nearby. Unlike other traditions where Hashem is distant, angry or to be feared, Hashem wants us to seek Him and be with Him. Whether we are celebrating or upset, Hashem can comfort and strengthen us, through good times and bad.

Through the stories of Torah, we can relate to and identify with the victories, hardships, disappointments, accomplishments, joy and sadness of our ancestors. We recognize ourselves in their life dilemmas, identify with their challenges and know that the mistakes they make mirror our own. When we dive deeply into the stories, we see that their life experiences are no different than our own: deceptions, conflicts, annoyances, and impatience; anxiety about responsibilities, outcomes and resolving dilemmas, joys, victories and love. We relate to the choices they must make; if we study, we see them in our everyday lives, because they are us—our friends, families and co-workers.

We are a nation of many, yet inseparable.

Living in a mundane and secular world, we have the power, given to us by Hashem, to elevate the world and everything around us. We identify and name the sacred, bringing everything about our lives closer to Hashem, and He works with us to make that happen. Opportunities to create holiness are all around us; we only need to open our eyes and take responsibility for naming the holy to be embraced by heaven.

And finally, we are here to improve the world. At first reading, that sounds like a huge task. But our everyday lives give us chances daily to make improvements, when we look around ourselves. Improving comes in many different forms: some are small, some are great, some are simple, and some are complex. But Hashem has asked us to continue His work of creation, to partner with Him with this significant ask.

All of these, and more, describe what it means to be a Jew.

Comments are welcome!