In his poignant and insightful writings, outgoing UK and Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks often avers that Judaism serves as “the voice of hope in an age of fear, the countervoice in the conversation of humankind.”
No light assignment, that. The more one ponders it, the more daunting the role seems. After all, what does it truly mean to be a countervoice in the conversation of humankind?
If the conversation requires a contrary, or even contradictory, voice then the implication is that the rest of humanity thinks one way and the Jew (or Jewish nation) must take a stand and step into the breach. But is it reasonable to ask an individual person, or an individual people, to oppose a majority’s consensus? Why risk such isolation?
Faced with such an unenviable scenario, the natural human instinct is to shirk responsibility and reenact Jonah’s ill-fated flight from duty. And for those Jews living in the Diaspora, nothing is easier than keeping quiet and ‘going along to get along’. All the resurgent anti-Semitism in society and the prevalent anti-Zionism in the media and on campuses can be ignored, passed over in silence so as not to rock the boat. Conforming to the inane notions of the herd and the academic echo chamber allows the Jew to blend in, and not stand out.
The problem is this: the Jew was born to stand out.
From the outset of the Hebraic faith, from the moment Abraham smashed his father’s idols, destiny was underway and there would be no turning back. By nature the Jew is a revolutionary iconoclast, not a silent member of the pack.
In our own modern age, being a countervoice means being a light unto the nations even if that light is generated by igniting a spark and starting a fire in the hearts and minds of those who ridicule the Divine and contemn tradition. It means being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation within a world of moral relativism and aggressive atheism.
It means to be a Joseph, a Queen Esther, a Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a Shmuel HaNagid, and a Don Isaac Abravanel amid foreign courts and countries, serving the general public yet representing ‘a people that dwells apart’, ‘scattered and dispersed among the peoples’ in all the kingdom’s provinces.
It means coming to terms with our identity, heritage, inheritance, and history. It means knowing that wherever we are is our place; that no matter where we are, Israel is our home.
In Israel and the Diaspora alike, civilian Jews are considered fair game and routinely targeted by terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism, as was the case in Toulouse, France, and Burgas, Bulgaria, and Buenos Aires, Argentina to name but a few. For the Jew, there is no hiding in civvies. There is no blending in, no escape from destiny, despite best efforts. Anti-Semites and terrorists regard all Jews as mortal enemies, whether we wear the uniform of IDF soldiers or not. It is as if every Jew is an army reservist.
Holocaust survivor Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau recently disclosed the profound lesson he learned from the late New York mayor Ed Koch, who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor despite having been born in America. Koch explained to Rabbi Lau that Hitler had plans to exterminate Jews the world over, not just to annihilate European Jewry. For the Fuhrer, ‘none were too many’. Any Jew, Koch therefore reasoned, counts as a survivor.
What all this amounts to is that, now more than ever, the era of the invisible or passive Jew must be over. We are all survivors. We are all reservists. We are all ambassadors.