Gut Yontif – Happy New Year!
Before there was television or the internet, if you wanted to communicate directly with many people you had to stand at a great height. Thirty centuries ago the prophet Balaam looked out from his high mountain perch at the assembled Israelites. As he surveyed them, he sought to communicate a blessing – actually not from Balaam at all, but from the Eternal. Balaam’s extraordinary words will be familiar to many, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” That biblical blessing is now incorporated into our morning worship services.
The rabbis of old asked a question about the meaning of the words of the prophet’s blessing. What, in particular, was so beautiful about our ancestor’s tents? The traditional Middle Eastern tents of desert nomads are drab and homespun. They are not the fancy camping tents we see popping up today in campgrounds, nor the tall white marquees that proliferated during the days of pandemic dining. The beauty of the tents, our rabbis taught, was in their placement. No tent was situated so its inhabitants could be seen from another tent. No entrance faced the door of another family’s home. Privacy was respected. Respect for our privacy in this digital age, and also respect for differences, in abilities, in tastes, in gender identities, in learning styles, ideas and beliefs – these are values that should be honored and expanded in our day.
Another of the prophet Balaam’s blessings seems to point in this same direction. He called our ancestors “the Israelites” – “a people that dwells apart, that is not counted among the nations.” Sometimes, it is true: it doesn’t feel like a blessing to be considered different. As Kermit the frog said, “It isn’t easy being green.” Being Jewish makes us stand out, too. The Yiddish expression gives voice to the complaint, “Shver tzu zain a Yid – it is hard to be a Jew.” That lament encapsulates a harsh reality. We Jews know that it can be difficult to stand out – to stand outside the mainstream.
But there is another side to the coin: differentness can also confer blessings. As Jews, we have accepted the challenge to stand out as unique and special. We are proud to represent a set of values and ideals that are vital to sustaining and healing our world. We believe that we were chosen for a purpose, and if we have the courage to rise to that challenge we can make an impact. We can serve as God’s eyes and ears, heart and hands in a world requiring much effort to counter callousness and cruelty.
In the New Year, and in days to follow, we have many difficult choices to make, commitments to keep. We must find the strength and wisdom to keep our families and communities safe from antisemitism and intolerance. We need to take concerted action to protect our planet and all of its people and creatures. We need to elect leaders who will help our nation and live up to its promise and ideals. We need to defend the State of Israel even as we help guide it to deepen its respect for all those who dwell in the land, Jews and Arabs, those of the many streams of tradition, faiths and identities. Above all, it is up to each of us to demonstrate, wherever we may live, that human life must be protected and nurtured.
It isn’t easy to be a Jew – and it is hard to stand out – but this is the task that we willingly embrace and accept in the New Year.
L’Shana Tova Tikateyvu ve-Taychateymu. May you already be inscribed and sealed for blessing and bringing blessing in the New Year. Θ
Rabbi David Kudan is the interim rabbi of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.