The Blessing of Being Different
The Torah portion “Lech Lecha” is aptly named, for it means “You go!” in the command form. It opens with God’s very first instruction to Abraham. That instruction is for him and his household and his followers to leave their native land and go to a place of their own, which will be given to them by God. Today we call that place Israel.
When you think about it, this is not just the very first instruction which God gave Abraham but it also is the very first instruction which God gave to us, the Jewish people. “Go!” Separate yourselves from that which is familiar and make of yourselves a singular and unique people. In other words, “Be Different!” Be different from all those who surround you. Be different and be proud. How prophetic were God’s words to Abraham, for as we know now, 4,000 years later, throughout the millennia, one of the primary hallmarks of being a Jew has been, is, and most likely will continue to be, being different; being different from everyone else who surrounds us.
We all know that being different has been for us Jews both a blessing and a curse. There is an old Yiddish maxim which I love to cite. “Schwer zu sein ein Yid und schayne zu sein ein Yid” – “It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.” Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced both sides of that equation.
There is no question but that we have known the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew all too well. So many of our holidays commemorate our having survived the attempts of others to crush or even destroy us. Passover celebrates our redemption from slavery in Egypt. Hanukkah celebrates our reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple to God from the Syrian Greeks who turned it into a house for pagan worship. Purim celebrates the undoing of Haman’s plot to execute the entire Jewish population of the Persian empire. Yom HaShoah memorializes the six million Jews slaughtered as a result of the genocidal plans of Nazi Germany. Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel, and its survival, both in its War of Independence when the Arab world vowed to “drive every Jew into the sea” and through all its subsequent wars, each time defeating a foe who would see it completely destroyed. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destructions of the Temple by both the Babylonians and the Romans, as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
Nor is our familiarity with the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew limited to our knowledge of past history. Unfortunately, we continue to experience it first hand as well. We experience it every time Israel has been attacked by terrorists bent on its destruction, yet the rest of the world remains silent about such attacks while they are ready and eager to condemn Israel for defending its citizens. We experience it every time one of our children is been put into the situation in a public school in which they find themselves forced to sing words of faith which are contrary to ours. We experience it every time the schools hold standardized testing such as the SATs or the ACTs on Jewish holidays; or for that matter, homecoming celebrations on our holidays. We experience it every time employers balk at or flatly refuse to grant their Jewish employees time off in order to observe Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. We experience it every time someone starts to rant about what they call “The War on Christmas” simply because some businesses attempt to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in America celebrates that holiday. We experience it every time someone insists that America is a “Christian” nation, meaning that the rest of us are not true Americans but rather some sort of tolerated guests. We experience it every time we attend a public gathering in which a prayer is offered and the person offering that prayer chooses to close it with a statement like, “in Jesus’ name we pray.” We experience it every time social pressure calls upon us to desert the observances of Shabbat and the holidays in order to engage with our neighbors in secular activities, for if we truly want to be accepted by others, we have to minimize if not abandon that which marks us as Jews; that which makes us different.
Yet even while being different can be a tremendous burden upon us as Jews, there is the shayne side – the beautiful side – as well. That, too, we have experienced. Who can deny the beauty of a Passover seder? As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving as we gather round the dining room table for our Thanksgiving feast, and it is nice. But the Thanksgiving feast pales in comparison to the seder. There is wonder and magic and beauty to be found there. So much so that even our Christian neighbors envy us our seder celebrations.
Who can deny the overwhelming joy of watching a child – especially when it is one of our children – becoming a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah? How justifiably filled with pride we are, and more importantly, how justifiably filled with pride our children are, at such a special occasion. And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Not just the parties, for anyone can hold a big party. They envy us the dedication and achievement of our children. They envy that our children are so ready and capable to stand up in public and profess their bonds to our people and our faith. I know that, for this is what I so often hear them say while standing in those Bar and Bat Mitzvah receiving lines.
Who can deny the power of a Jewish wedding? All weddings are beautiful but there is something very special about Jewish weddings. The rituals speak straight to the heart. There is the chupah, symbolizing the home and the new family unit that this couple is creating. With a roof but no sides, it is an open home, welcoming all who care for the happy couple, with both sets of parents standing beside them as well as their friends and siblings. There is the wine, symbolizing our prayers that the newlyweds’ lives together be both sweet and joyful. There is the ketubah, the wedding contract, symbolizing the commitments that are necessary to create a lasting marriage. There is the breaking of the glass, symbolizing the seal of sanctity that has been placed on the union they have created. And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our wedding rituals. I know this because often, after conducting an interfaith marriage ceremony, the non-Jewish parents, who often at first were hesitant about participating, approach me to tell me how beautiful, meaningful, and inclusive, they found the whole experience to be.
Whether we choose to realize it or not, there is a message embedded in all of this. That message is that when we affirm our Judaism, when we celebrate our Judaism, when we elect to stop being afraid of being different and willingly embrace that in Judaism which makes us different, there is great beauty to be found there. At the end of the day, that which makes us Jews different is not a curse, but rather a blessing; a profound blessing.
While we seem to be able to uncover such blessings in the big Jewish events in our lives, those are not the only places in which such blessings reside. For if we but seek them out, we will find that they permeate all of Jewish life; the big moments and the small ones as well.
Recently, I explored with the students of our religious school the practice of reciting the prayer “Modeh Ani” upon waking up in the morning. It is a simple prayer and easily chanted. In translation the text states, “I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust.” What a wonderful way to start each and every day – thanking God for the gift of another day of life! For when we go to sleep at night, there is no guarantee that we will wake up. That is why it is a Jewish practice that right before we go to sleep we recite the “Shema”, which according to our tradition is supposed to be the last words a Jew utters before dying. So when we do wake up in the morning, “the Modeh Ani” reminds us that each day is a gift. What a wonderful, positive thing it is for us to start each and every day, recognizing that it is a gift and should be treated accordingly. It is a blessing that our Judaism teaches us to approach each and every day with an attitude of gratitude.
The same holds true for saying the “Motsi” whenever we sit down to eat. In a world filled with starving people, Judaism teaches us to appreciate the blessing of having food with which to sustain our bodies.
The same holds true for all those opportunities offered to us to say the “Shehechiyanu”; all those times in our lives which are special and unique. For this prayer is not just for lighting the first candle on Hanukkah or just for Bar and Bat Mitzvah services and weddings. Our lives are filled with “Shehechiyanu” moments, if we but recognizing them and feel moved enough by them to sanctify them with the prayer. Our Judaism teaches us that there are special moments in our lives which call for a special blessing.
The same holds true for the observance of Shabbat. There are those Jews who think of Shabbat as one of the most onerous burdens placed upon us as Jews, and so they choose not to observe it. But then there are those Jews who choose to observe Shabbat, and in their observance they discover, not burden but blessing. They discover that Shabbat Shalom, the peace of Shabbat, is far more than some empty words with which Jews greet each other on this day; that enfolded in Shabbat can be a profound sense of peace, if we but choose to access it. That Oneg Shabbat, the “joy of Shabbat” is far more than just a snack of coffee and cookies after the services; that there is a true sense of joy to be found in taking this weekly opportunity to affirm ourselves as Jews, proud of being Jews, connected through Judaism to our fellow Jews and to God. Shabbat can be an enormous blessing offered to Jews week after week after week if we but choose to pick it up.
These are but just a few simple examples of how those aspects of Judaism which makes us different from others are not to be feared or resented but rather embraced, for it is precisely that which makes us different from others which is also that which enables us to sanctify our lives, both in the big moments and in the small ones. While there is no denying that which makes us as Jews different from others can, at times be a curse from which we can suffer greatly, it is all the more true that what makes us as Jews different can be, at all times a blessing. To be a Jew is to receive the blessing of being different.
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