I encountered the following story on several Web sites: A number of years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash.
At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish, and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over and began to cry.
The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them.
One girl with Down syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it feel better.”
Then all nine linked arms, and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood and cheered.
There is something about unity that touches all of our hearts. The cheering during those games was unparalleled. Can we unite as Jews?
For this we must reflect on what really makes us one people. What defines us as a single nation? What is the common denominator between all Jews, between the Chasidim in Meah Shearim and the liberals in Berkeley? Between the Yemenite Jews and the West Side Ashkenazim? Between Eli Wiesel and Noam Chomsky? Between the humanistic Jewish atheist and the ultra-Orthodox Jew from Boro Park?
When did the Israelites become a nation? Who was the first one who defined them as a nation? At what point did they cease to be merely a “family,” Children of Jacob, children of Israel, and become an “am,” a nation? Who crafted this transition?
You know, nothing with Jews is simple. The Bible gives us two contradictory answers.
In the beginning of Exodus, the title “nation” is conferred upon the Hebrews by none other than Pharaoh, the emperor of Egypt.
“The nation of the children of Israel is growing stronger than us,” Pharaoh said to his people. “Let us devise a clever way to rid ourselves of them.”
He then developed a program of genocide for the blossoming nation who, he feared, would take over Egypt and take over the world.
(We also read in Deuteronomy 26 in the portion of Ki Tavo: “Our ancestors went down to Egypt and there they became a nation.”)
Yet later, in the same book of Exodus, we have an entirely different story: When the Israelites left Egypt and stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses tells them: “You shall become to me [God] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
In Deuteronomy (Ki Tavo) Moses says it clearly: “Hayom hazeh nehayata Laam!” Today you have become a nation! This is more than a century after Pharaoh defined the Jews as a nation.
When did we become a nation? Who made us into a nation?
The Bible, in a very subtle and sophisticated way, teaches us of the great identity crisis that would define Jews throughout history. What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to be a member of the people of Israel? What is the common thread that bonds all Jews? These are the great questions still debated today.
There are two definitions to Jewish nationhood: One given by Pharaoh, the other by Moses. Pharaoh defines us as a nation in terms of anti-Semitism. We are the group that poses a challenge to the Egyptian Empire and to humanity in general. What makes us Jewish is that Pharaoh is threatened by us, loathes us, and is determined to destroy us.
Moses’ definition is radically different: “You shall become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” We are bound together by a vision to construct a holy world, to grant history the dignity of purpose, to build a world saturated with light and love. What unites is a covenant of love, a shared commitment to recognize the image of God in every human being and the unity of humanity under a singular God.
I once asked someone who is extremely secular, “What makes you a Jew? Are you my brother?”
“Yes I am,” he replied. “I am Jewish. A proud Jew.”
“What connects you and I?” I responded.
“We share the same destiny,” he said. “Hitler would have sent us both to the gas chambers. Ahmadinejad sees us both as a manifestation of the devil. You are a Jew, I am a Jew. We are subject to the same fate.”
He is right. But this definition alone is the one that Pharaoh gave us. In his mind we were “Am B’nei Yisroel,” a nation in the sense that our blood is less red, that our honor is meaningless, that our property can be taken, that our freedom is non-existent. We have laws different from the others. We were a minority in Egypt with no rights at all. Discrimination against us is justified.
Sixty-five years ago, we experienced the same fate. Jews from Berlin and Jews from Warsaw had the same fate. Chassidim, Misnagdim, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Jews from Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine, Italy — we all shared the same destiny. Left-wing communist Jews and right-wing Zionists, Reform and Orthodox, all were decimated with the same glee and passion. We were united by hate.
“Who will define you as a Jew?” Moses asked. Pharaoh? Nebuchadnezzar? Vespasian? Titus? Constantine? Muhammad? Torquemada? Chmelnitzky? Adolf Eichmann? Julius Streicher? Alfred Rosenberg? Yasser Arafat? Hassan Nasrallah? Will they answer the question of what is a Jew?
Or will it be Abraham, Moses, King David, Rabbi Akiva, Abaye and Rava, Rashi, Rambam and the Baal Shem Tov who will tell us what it means to be Jewish?
Will we be bound only in the covenant of fate? When we suffer together, when we face a common enemy, we will unite because we have shared tears, shared fears, so we will huddle together for comfort and mutual protection?
Or will we be bound by the fact that we share dreams, aspirations, ideals? We will not need a common enemy, because we will have a common hope? Will we come together to create something new, beautiful and exciting? Will we be defined not by what happens to us but by what we commit ourselves to do? Not by a covenant of fate, but by a bond of faith?