As we begin 2022, the morality, wisdom and hope of the Jewish people offer compass and stability to a world desperately in need of direction and calm.
As the turbulent 2021 came to an end, I was blessed to enjoy a family vacation to Washington, D.C. There, we oriented ourselves by the Washington Monument: to the north sat our hotel, just beyond the White House; to the west, the Lincoln Memorial gleamed; to the east of the Monument, the Capitol dome rose on the Hill; and to the south, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Center shared its message with the world.
As a family descended from Holocaust survivors, we believe the United States remains an idea that inspires visions of a better tomorrow and a land that offers refuge to the tired masses yearning to breathe free.
Like the Washington Monument, Judaism stands among the world religions as a centering presence and directional support. Ever since our descent thousands of years ago into Egypt, and then again after the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples, we Jews have served as an instrument of moral orientation, as well as a towering presence of wisdom and hope to the world.
First, as individual Jews living actively Jewish lives in a Gentile world, we share with our neighbors the ethics and morality derived from a position of intergenerational otherness. Thirty-six times the Torah reminds us that we were strangers in a strange land and that we therefore possess an obligation to protect the vulnerable. As if the entire Torah were an answer from God to Cain’s query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), Moses pronounced one of the most important teachings that Judaism brings to our world: “You must not remain indifferent” (Deuteronomy 22:3). The wisdom of Judaism and, even more so the lessons derived from suffering of Jews, lead to the realization that humanity cannot stand when the powerful abuse the powerless.
Second, Judaism declares that a family must take care of its own and that all within a nation are responsible for one another. Our Torah instructs us that maturity is only truly achieved upon seeing the suffering of others and responding with action. Twice we read that Moses grew up, the first in reference to his physical development and the second regarding his spiritual development when he arose passionately to cease the suffering of his kinsman.
Moreover, when the Torah demands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), it speaks of one Jew’s need to care, respect, honor and show compassion toward his or her fellow Jews.
As communities locally and nations globally continue to see their residents suffering from the pandemic and poverty, violence and vitriol, they would do well to learn the wisdom of the Jewish people, whose profound sense of obligation toward one another far supersedes any sense of personal rights or self-entitlement.
Third, we Jews exemplify the meaningfulness of joyful gratitude and true humility. At home and at the synagogue, through the whisper of blessings each day to the singing, dancing and culinary rituals celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays, Judaism uplifts the spirit and nourishes the soul. Moreover, the brilliance of the mandate to disconnect from technology one day each week offers a powerful salve in a world tortured by the plagues of social media and the 24/7 news industry.
Just as important, Judaism’s commitment to seeking truth and practicing radical listening, especially to those with whom we disagree, are the foundations of our educational process. In a world driven by ever-increasing commercialization, tribalism and the echo-chambers of social media, the Jewish idea that life is richer through gratitude and humility offers a transformational path to healthier, happier lives.
Beyond all this wisdom, though, perhaps the greatest direction toward which Judaism guides the world as we come into 2022 is the hope that comes from faith in God, and the pragmatic optimism that springs forth from the partnership between humanity and the Divine. It is the fervent Jewish belief in a messianic era, described as peace between nations and the satiety of human needs. In a time of terrible anxiety, bloodthirsty anger and profound suffering, the vision of a time in which every person shall sit under his or her vine and fig tree and that none shall make him/her afraid should unite us in shared purpose and labor. There is strength in faith and power in hope.
As we begin 2022, the morality, wisdom and hope of the Jewish people offer compass and stability to a world desperately in need of direction and calm. May we orient ourselves by our faith and our people, by our Washington Monument, so the rest of the world, too, can find its path forward to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Rabbi Aaron Starr is a spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.