Rabbi Sacks on “the Jewish Condition”

This is an excerpt (no doubt copyrighted to Rabbi Sacks), of his explanation to the conundrums that envelop us בכל דור ודור.

At the beginning of time God created the universe in a burst of energy that eventually gave birth to stars, then to planets, then to life. Among the millions of forms of life that eventually emerged was one different from all the others: Homo sapiens, the only life-form known to us capable of asking the question, “Why?”

On this one being, God bestowed the highest token of His love, setting His image and likeness on every human individual regardless of colour, culture, creed or class. He invited humanity to become His “partners in the work of creation,” calling us to create what He himself had created: freedom and order, the order of nature and the freedom that allows humans, alone in the universe, to choose between good and evil, healing and harm.

What the Torah tells us early on is how humanity failed. They did so in two ways. They created freedom without order. Or they created order without freedom. That is still the human tragedy.

Freedom without order was the world before the Flood, a state of anarchy and chaos that Thomas Hobbes famously described as “the war of every man against every man,” in which life is “nasty brutish and short.” That is the world today in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, the Central African Republic and other conflict zones elsewhere, a world of failed and failing states and societies wracked and wrecked by lawlessness. That is freedom without order, what the Torah calls a “world filled with violence” (Gen. 6: 13) that made God “regret that he had made man on earth, and it grieved Him to his very heart” (6: 6).

But the alternative was a world of order without freedom, epitomised in the Torah by the Tower of Babel and Egypt of the Pharaohs, civilizations that achieved greatness at the cost of turning the mass of humanity into slaves. That too is an affront to human dignity, because each of us, not just some of us, are in the image of God.

Having seen these two kinds of failure, God called on one man, Abraham, and one woman, Sarah, and said in effect: I want you to be different. I want you and those who follow you to create, out of a tiny people in a tiny land, a nation that will show the world what it is to sustain both order and freedom; what it is to build a society on the threefold imperative of love, love of God “with all your heart, with all your soul and all your strength,” love of our neighbour “as yourself,” and love of the stranger, a command reiterated in the Torah, according to the sages, 36 times.

I want you to become the people who keep the laws of tzedek and mishpat (justice and law), chessed and rachamim (grace and mercy), not because of the coercive power of the State but because you have taught your children to hear the voice of God within the human heart. I want you to show the world how to create freedom without anarchy and order without tyranny. That has been the Jewish mission for the better part of 4,000 years.

The result was that Jews found themselves, time and again, in the front line of the defence of humanity. Where there is freedom without order – anarchy – everyone is a potential victim. Jews played no special part in this history. But where there is order without freedom – imperialism in all its guises – Jews have often been the primary targets because they are the people who more than any other have consistently refused to bow down to tyrants.

That is why they were attacked by the empires of the ancient world, Egypt Assyria and Babylon; of classical antiquity, Greece and Rome; the Christian and Muslim theocratic empires of the Middle Ages; and the two greatest tyrannies of the modern world, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The face of tyranny today is radical political Islam in the form of Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, Islamic Jihad, Hizb at-Takrir, Hizbollah and Hamas that are creating havoc and destruction throughout the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. They constitute a real and present danger to the liberal democracies of Europe also. And despite the fact that Israel is an almost microscopic element in this global disturbance, it is once again in the front line.

Why? Because Jews throughout history have recognised tyranny for what it is, and have refused to be intimidated by power, threat, terror and fear. Somehow, in the most dangerous region of the world, Israel has created a society of freedom and order: a free press, free elections and an independent judiciary on the one hand, and constant innovation in the arts and sciences, agriculture, medicine and technology on the other.

Israel is not perfect. We believe – the Hebrew Bible is the most self-critical national literature in all of history – that no one is perfect, that “There is no one on earth who is so righteous that he does only right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7: 20). But today’s Israel has been doing what Jews have been charged to do since the days of Abraham and Moses, to create freedom without anarchy and order without tyranny. And if that puts Israel on the front line yet again, there is no nobler cause in which to be so.

Moses’ words ring out today with as much power as they did thirty three centuries ago: “Choose life so that you and your children may live.” If Hamas were to do that one thing, the Palestinians of Gaza would have peace. Innocent lives would not be lost. Palestinian children would have a future. Because Israel did make that choice, it has created a society of order and freedom while all around it rage the godless fires of chaos and terror.

So although yet again we will shed tears this Tisha b’Av, let us at least thank God for the courage and greatness of the people of Israel. For, knowing what we know of history, we would surely rather have the state of Israel and the condemnation of the world, than, God forbid, no state of Israel and the sympathy of the world. And as we read the last line of Eichah, let us be fully aware of what those words have come to mean in our time:

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְקֹוָ֤ק׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם

You brought us back, O God, and we returned. Help us to renew our days as of old,” in peace, speedily in our days, Amen.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

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