The Genesis of a Faith
The unfolding dramatic events in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East and Africa, as well as the recent Gilad Shalit exchange for 1,027 Arab convicts, ought to serve as an urgent call for the Jewish world to reclaim its mission statement articulated at the moment the nation was born, 3800 years ago.
How did the Jewish faith come into existence?
The Midrash (commentary) describes the birth of Judaism with the following cryptic parable:
The Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.” To what may this be compared? To a man who was travelling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that the palace has no owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler”? G-d looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.” (Midrash Rabah Bereishis 39:1)
Abraham’s bewilderment is clear. This sensitive human being gazes at a brilliantly structured universe, an extraordinary piece of art. He is stirred by the grandeur of a sunset and by the miracle of childbirth. He marvels at the roaring ocean waves and at the silent, steady heartbeat of the human heart. The world is a palace indeed.
But the palace is in flames. The world is full of violence, bloodshed, injustice and strife. Thugs, abusers, rapists and killers are continuously demolishing the palace and its royal inhabitants. Dissidents are tortured; protesters are mowed down like grass. Human life has no value.
What happened to the owner of the palace? Abraham cries. Why does God allow man to destroy His majestic world? Why does He permit such a beautiful universe to go up in flames? Can God have made a world only to abandon it? Would anybody build a palace and then desert it?
So “The owner of the palace looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ God looked out and said to Abraham, ‘I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe,’” the Midrash records God’s reply. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks presents this compelling interpretation to God’s response.
Where Is Man?
Note that the owner of the palace does not make an attempt to get out of the burning building or to extinguish the flames; he is merely stating that he is the owner of the palace going up in smoke. Why did he not leave the mansion? It is as if, instead of racing out, the owner was calling for help. God made the palace, man set it on fire, and only man can put out the flames. Abraham asks God, “Where are you?” God replies, “I am here, where are you?” Man asks God, “Why did You abandon the world?” God asks man, “Why did you abandon Me?”
Thus begins the revolution of Judaism—humanity’s courageous venture to extinguish the flames of oppression and violence and restore the world to the harmonious palace it was intended to be. Abraham’s encounter with God in the presence of a burning palace gave birth to the mission statement of Judaism: to be obsessed with good and horrified by evil.
Reclaiming Our Mission Statement
For to long, many Jews have succumbed to the lure of the popular notion that there is no such a thing as absolute evil behavior. “Though shall not judge,” became our cherished motto. We have been taught, instead, to probe and understand the underlying frustrations compelling the aggressor to follow his extreme route.
This sophisticated and open-minded point of view allowed to us sustain our ethos of boundless tolerance, accepting all forms of behavior as just, since at the core of every mean act lies a crying heart.
Few ideas have been rejected in the Torah with so much passion. Because Judaism placed as it highest ideal the creation of a good and ethical world, while the refusal to take a stand on what is wrong results in its victory. A non-judgmental view of a suicide bomber, for example, may appeal to our compassion and understanding, yet in reality it is a display of extreme cruelty to the innocent victims who will die at the hands of frustrated militants.
Judaism, in its obsessive attempt to turn the word into an exquisite palace, created absolute universal standards for good and evil defined by the Creator of the universe, articulated in His manual for human living, the Torah. Taking the life of an innocent person is evil. No ifs, buts or why’s. The killer may be badly hurting but that never ever justifies the evil of murdering an innocent human being.
Yet, tragically, we have become numb to our mission statement. For many years now the Jewish State displayed tolerance toward terrorists, neglecting our most cherished doctrine that the preservation of human life rains supreme over every other consideration. The results of our moral confusion were devastating: Thousands of innocent Jews and Arabs are now dead. And terrorists the world over learnt that they could continue their despicable work without serious consequences.
Good people of the world are waiting to be inspired by our four-millennium long heritage of standing up to evil and banishing it from God’s palace.