What does it mean to be a Jew? Does it mean being born to a Jewish parent? Does it mean embracing certain religious beliefs and observing specified rituals and holidays? Does it mean being linked, emotionally or genetically, to a people that has played a unique role in human history?
All of these are true, I believe. But there is an additional aspect of Jewish identity which has always equated acts of loving-kindness with holiness. Judaism has always been concerned with bringing religion into our everyday lives, whether it be in our dealings with our loved ones, with strangers, and most certainly our business dealings.
All of this is the theme of this week’s Torah portion. Moses, knowing that he is about to die, attempts to summarize the teachings of his forty years of leadership. He speaks to a people that had been enslaved; a people that had known oppression and poverty. He speaks to people who had been regarded as “strangers,” and paid a painful price for that castigation. Most of all, Moses wants these people to understand that their role and destiny is to ever-strive, individually and collectively, to make our world more humane.
One of our wise sages of some two-thousand years ago put it this way: “In a place where no one behaves as befits a human being, you must nevertheless strive to be human.” I think being Jewish is rooted in that affirmation, with all of our rituals and observances seeking to instill that ideal in our daily lives. I hope you will join us as we celebrate Shabbat this evening.