It is the moment the Jewish people acquired its name. Nothing could have been more unexpected or mysterious. Jacob is about to meet the brother he had not seen for 22 years - Esau, the man who had once vowed to kill him. Alone and afraid at the dead of night, he is assaulted by an unnamed stranger. They wrestle. Time passes. Dawn is about to break:
Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go until you bless me."
The man asked him, "What is your name?"
"Jacob," he answered.
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with G-d and with men and have overcome."
So the people Israel acquired its name, surely the strangest and most haunting in all the religious experience of mankind.
Religion, faith, spirituality - these words conjure up many ideas and associations: peace, serenity, inwardness, meditation, calm, acceptance, bliss. Often faith has been conceived as an alternative reality, a "haven in a heartless world," an escape from the strife and conflict of everyday life. There is much to be said for this idea. But it is not Judaism.
Judaism is not an escape from the world but an engagement with the world. It is not "the opium of the people," as Karl Marx once called religion. It does not anaesthetise us to the pains and apparent injustices of life. It does not reconcile us to suffering. It asks us to play our part in the most daunting undertaking ever asked by G-d of mankind: to construct relationships, communities, and ultimately a society, that will become homes for the Divine presence. And that means wrestling with G-d and with men and refusing to give up or despair.
Wrestling with G-d: that is what Moses and the prophets did. They said, in effect: G-d, your demands are great but we human beings are small. We try, but often we fail. We make mistakes. We have moments of weakness. You are right: we have much to feel bad about in our lives. But we are your children. You made us. You chose us. So forgive us. And G-d forgives. Judaism is a religion of repentance and confession, but it is not a religion of guilt.
Wrestling with men: since the days of Abraham, to be a Jew is to be an iconoclast. We challenge the idols of the age, whatever the idols, whatever the age. Sometimes it meant wrestling with idolatry, superstition, paganism, magic, astrology, primitive beliefs. At other times it means wrestling with secularism, materialism, consumerism. There were times, in the Middle Ages, when Europe was largely illiterate and Jews alone practised universal education. There were others - the twentieth century, for example - when Jews became the targets of Fascism and Communism, systems that worshipped power and desecrated the dignity of the individual. Judaism is a religion of protest - the counter-voice in the conversation of mankind.
Jacob is not Abraham or Isaac. Abraham symbolises faith as love. Abraham loved G-d so much he was willing to leave his land, home and father's house to follow him to an unknown land. He loved people so much that he treated passing strangers as if they were angels (the irony is: they were angels. Often people become what we see them as. Treat people like enemies and they become enemies. Treat them as friends and they become friends). Abraham dies "at a good age, old and satisfied." A life of love is serene. Abraham was serene.
Isaac is faith as fear, reverence, awe. He was the child who was nearly sacrificed. He remains the most shadowy of the patriarchs. His life was simple, his manner quiet, his demeanour undemonstrative. Often we find him doing exactly what his father did. His is faith as tradition, reverence for the past, continuity. Isaac was a bridge between the generations. Simple, self-contained, pure: that is Isaac.
But Jacob is faith as struggle. Often his life seemed to be a matter of escaping one danger into another. He flees from his vengeful brother only to find himself at the mercy of deceptive Laban. He escapes from Laban only to encounter Esau marching to meet him with a force of four hundred men. He emerges from that meeting unscathed, only to be plunged into the drama of the conflict between Joseph and his other sons, which caused him great grief. Alone among the patriarchs, he dies in exile. Jacob wrestles, as his descendants - the children of Israel - continue to wrestle with a world that never seems to grant us peace.
Yet Jacob never gives up and is never defeated. He is the man whose greatest religious experiences occur when he is alone, at night, and far from home. Jacob wrestles with the angel of destiny and inner conflict and says, "I will not let you go until you bless me." That is how he rescues hope from catastrophe - as Jews have always done. Their darkest nights have always been preludes to their most creative dawns.
Zis schver zu sein a Yid, they used to say. "It's hard to be a Jew." In some ways, it still is. It is not easy to face our fears and wrestle with them, refusing to let go until we have turned them into renewed strength and blessing. But speaking personally, I would have it no other way. Judaism is not faith as illusion, seeing the world through rose-tinted lenses as we would wish it to be. It is faith as relentless honesty, seeing evil as evil and fighting it in the name of life, and good, and G-d. That is our vocation. It remains a privilege to carry Jacob's destiny, Israel's name.
The Jewish question is not, What can the world give me?
from "From Renewal to Responsibility" September 2001
JEWS ARE, to put it mildly, a small people, less than one-quarter of one per cent of the population of the world. For every Jew today there are 165 Christians and 83 Muslims. I remember being given, in 1991, a directory of Jewish communities around the world. For each country it listed the total population, followed by the number of Jews. I will never forget the entry for China. It read: China, population 1 billion, Jewish population 5. I remember saying to Elaine, "If there are five Jews in China, I am sure of two things. There will be six shuls, and someone somewhere will be saying, The Jews are running the country." More than three thousand years later, the words of Moses remain true (Deut. 7:7): "The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of peoples." We were then. We are now.
Why then did G-d choose this tiny people – us and our ancestors – for so great a task, to be His witnesses in the world, the people who fought against the idols of the age in every age, the carriers of His message to humanity? Why did He promise Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be innumerable, as many as the stars of the sky and the sand on the sea shore? Why are we so few? What is the meaning of this dissonance between the greatness of the task and the smallness of the people charged with carrying it out?
There is a passage in the Torah that deserves our greatest attention. "When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no mishap (negef) will come on them when you number them" (Ex. 30:12). This is a strange verse. It suggests that it is dangerous to count Jews. Many centuries later, ignoring this warning, King David took a census of the people, and disaster struck the nation. To this day, we do not needlessly count Jews, even to calculate whether there is a minyan in the synagogue. Our custom is to take a verse with ten words, and use that instead. Why is it dangerous to count Jews?
The classic commentators give many answers. I want to suggest another. Why do nations take censuses? Why do they count their numbers? To estimate their strength – military, political, or economic. Behind the ancient practice of counting populations is the assumption that there is strength in numbers. The larger the people, the stronger it is. That is why it is dangerous to count Jews. If we ever came to believe that there is strength in numbers we would, G-d forbid, give way to despair. For four thousand years the strength of the Jewish people has never lain in numbers. In ancient Israel, our ancestors were a small nation surrounded by mighty empires: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. In the Diaspora, throughout the centuries and continents, Jews were a minority without rights or power. Jewish strength did not lie in numbers.
Where then did it lie? To this the Torah gives an answer of surpassing beauty. In effect, G-d tells Moses, "Do not count Jews. Ask them to give, and then count the contributions. That is how you measure the strength of the Jewish people." In terms of numbers we are small. But in terms of our contributions, we are vast. In almost every age, Jews have given something special to the world. In one era it was the Hebrew Bible, the most influential document in the history of the world. In later centuries Jews produced a never-ending stream of scholars, scientists, poets and philosophers.
In more recent times, as the doors of Western society opened, they made their mark in one field after another: business, industry, the arts and sciences, cinema, the media, medicine and almost every field of academic life. Among the shapers of the modern mind, a disproportionate number have been Jews. In the United States alone, where they form a mere 2 per cent of the population, they have contributed 40% of its Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, and a half of its most influential intellectuals. In Britain, two of the last three Lord Chief Justices have been Jews.
There is a mystery here in need of demystification. It is not that Jews are brighter, cleverer, more energetic or talented than others. That is a racist doctrine and I reject it utterly. Nor is it that Jews, more than others, are driven to succeed. That is at the heart of much antisemitic propaganda, and it is false. The simple answer, given in the Torah and engraved in Jewish sensibility, is that to be a Jew is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference, to help in the monumental task that has engaged Jews since the dawn of our history, to make the world a home for the Divine presence, a place of justice, compassion, human dignity and the sanctity of life. Though our ancestors cherished their relationship with
G-d, they never saw it as a privilege.
Instead they saw it as a responsibility. Except in their earliest days, G-d never offered to do things for them: He asked them to do things for and with Him. He challenged them to give. He empowered them to lead. In that familiar yet astonishing phrase He invited them to be His "partners in the work of creation."
I wonder if ever a religion or a philosophy has taken a more challenging view of the nature of mankind. According to Judaism we are not tainted by original sin and therefore incapable of doing good without G-d’s grace. To the contrary, we are a mix of good and evil and everything depends on our choice. Nor are we asked, humbly and passively, to accept the world as it is. That is not what the patriarchs and prophets did. They raged against the injustice of the world. They even argued with G-d Himself. G-d’s reply was simple. Hit-halekh lefanai, "Walk on ahead of Me." I will show you what to do, but you must do it. The whole of Judaism is a call to responsibility - to G-d, His word and His world. Judaism is, par excellence, a religion of responsibility.
G-d asked great things of the Jewish people, and in so doing, made them “Do not count Jews. Ask them to give, and then count the contributions. That is how you measure the strength of the Jewish people.” great. Perhaps that is also why He made the Jewish people small. There is a fascinating passage in the Book of Judges. Gideon is about to wage war against the Midianites. G-d tells him he will succeed. Gideon assembles an army of 32,000 men. G-d says: Too many. Gideon gets up and tells the people: Whoever wants to leave, should leave. 22,000 do so, leaving ten thousand men. G-d says: Still too many. Take the people, He says, to a river and see how they drink. Those who kneel down, send home. Those who raise the water in their hands, keep with you. Gideon does so. By now, only 300 men are left, an absurdly small force. Now, says G-d, go and fight. They do, and win.
If any story in the Bible tells us about the significance of Jewish smallness, it is this. To win the special battle in which you are engaged, says G-d, you do not need numbers. You need commitment, passion, dedication to a cause. Precisely because you are outnumbered, every individual will know that he or she counts; that each Jew carries an immense responsibility for the fate of Judaism and the Jewish people. Zechariah put it best: "Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, says the Almighty Lord." Physical strength needs numbers. The larger the nation, the more powerful it is. But when it comes to spiritual strength, you need not numbers but a sense of responsibility. You need a people, each of whom knows that he or she must contribute something to the human heritage, leaving the world better than it would have been had they not existed. The Jewish question is not, What can the world give me? It is, What can I give to the world? The Jewish story is a story of responsibility.