A letter in the Scroll

Published on 9 January 2024 at 10:42

     Who am I ? Who are we? 

    By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks


It happend in the never- to- be -forgotten summer of 1967. I had just gone to university, leaving home for the first time. Until then I had been a Jew- well because that is what my parents were. I did what I did without asking why I had my Bar Mitzvah, I went to Hebrew classes, and every saturday I went to the synagogue with my father. There was no reason not to, no reason to rebel.


Cambridge was a revelation. Here for the first time I could feel the lure of history, the siren call of a different culture. Everything was dazzeling, the river, the lawns, the bicycles, the dons, the whole rich texture of a world of stunning beauty that was now my own. And there was an intellectual shock in store. Without quite intending to, I found myself studying philosophy- not the easiest of disciplines in which to preserve a religious faith. On of the first books I read was A.J Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic, a remarkable work written in the 1930s at the height of Logical Positivism, which in a mere twenty pages he dismissed the whole of metaphysics morals and religion as meaningless. If the sentences make sense, he argued, they had to be testable either by logic or direct experience. Religion failed on both accounts. You couldn't prove the existence of God. Nor could you experience a being who by definition, lay beyond the physical world of the senses.



The university seems like a microcosm of the universe. Here was every kind of student, from every kind of background, studying every subject in every conceivable way. What mattered was critical intelligence, the ability to question everything, accepting no answers on the basis of authority or age or tradition or revelation. Reality was confined to facts and inferences. Everything else was choice. You could be anything, do anything, intellectually and existentially. My parent's world seemd long ago and far away. 



Then, in May, we began to hear a disturbing news from the Middle East. The Egyptians had blocked the Gulf of Akaba. They demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations troops, who instantly complied. War was in the air. The State of Israel was exposed attacks on all fronts. A catastrophe seemd to be in the making. I, who had not lived through the Holocaust nor even thought much about it, became suddenly aware that a second tragedy might be about to overtake the Jewish people.



Throughout the university Jews suddenly became visible. Day after day they crowded into a little synagogue in the center of town.Students and  dons who never before publicy identified as Jews could be found there praying. Others began collecting money. Everyone wanted to help in some way, to express their solidarity, their indentification with Israel's fate. Is was some time before we realized that the same phenomenon was repeating itself throughout the world. From the United States to the Soviet Union, Jews were riveted to their television screens or radios, anxious to hear the latest news, involved, on edge, as if it were their own lives that were at stake. The rest is history. The  war was fought and won. It lasted a mere six days, one of the most spectacular victories in modern history. We could celebrate and breathe safely again. Life went back to normal.



But not completely. For I had witnessed something in those days and weeks that didn't make sense in the rest of my world. It had nothing to do with politics or war or even prayer. It had to do with Jewish identity. Collectively the Jewish people had looked in the mirror and said, We are still Jews. And by that they meant more than a private declaration of faith, " religion " in the conventional sense of the world. It meant that they felt part of a people, involved in its fate, implicated in its destiny, caught up in its tragedy, exhilarated by its survival. I had felt it. So had every other Jew I knew.



Why? The Israelis were not my people I knew. They were neither friends nor relatives in any literal sense. Israel was a country two thousand miles away, which I had visit once but in which I had no plans to live. Yet I had no doubt that their danger was something I felt personally. It was then I knew that being Jewish was not something private and personal but something collective and historical. It meant being part of an extended family, many of whose members I did not know, but to whom I nonetheless felt connected by bonds of kinship and responsibilty.



It made no sense at all in the concepts and categories of the 1960s. That was when I first realized that being Jewish was an exceptionally odd thing to be,structually odd. Jewish identity was not simply a truth or set of truths I could accept or reject. It was not a faith I could adopt or leave alone. I had not chosen it. It had chosen me. Everything I had studied in modern philosophy, everything I had experienced in contemporary culture, told me that truth was universal and all else was individual- personal preference, autonomous choice. But what I had experienced was neither universal or individual. Jewish identity was not, nor did it aspire to be, the universal human condition. Nor had I chosen it. It was something I was born into. But how can anyone truly be born into specific obligations and responsibilities without their consent? Logically it didn't add up. Yet psychologically it did. Without any conscious decision I was reminded that merely by being born into the Jewish people I was enmeshed in a network of relationships that connected me to other people, other places, other times. I belonged to a people. And being part of a people, I belonged. 



It didn't make any sense in terms of twentieth- century thoughts. Yet it made eminent sense in the language of Jewish tradition. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a teacher of the second century, had likend the Jewish people to a single body with a single soul: " When one of them is injured, they all feel pain. " The Rabbis of that time defined the moral obligation behind the metaphor. They said, Kol Yisroel arevim zeh bazeh. " All Jews are responsable for one another." And behind both statements was a much more ancient memory of the covenant undertaken by the Israelites in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai in which they pledged themselves to a collective existence as a people under the sovereignity of G-d.


Who am I ?


The Holiest object in Judaism is a Sefer Torah, a scroll of the Law. Still written today as it was thousands of years ago,by hand with a quil on parchment, it symbolizes  some of Judaism's deepest beliefs: that HaShem is to be found in words,that these words are to be found in the Torah, and that they form the basis of the covenant- the bond of love- between HaShem and the Jewish people.



I wonder if any people has ever love a book as we love the Torah. We stand when it passes as if were a King. We dance with it as if it were a bride. If it is desecrated or destroyed, we bury it as it were a relative or friend. We study it endlessly as if in it were hidden all the secrets of our being. Heinrich Heine once called the Torah  the " portable homeland " of the Jewish people, by which he meant  that we lacked a land, we found our home in the Torah's words. More powerful still, the Baal Shem Tov- founder of the Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century- said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew in one of its letters.



I am move by that image, and it invites a question- the question: Will we, in our lifetime, be letters in the Scroll of the Jewish people? At the same stage, each of us must decide how to live our lives. We have many options. We can see our life as though it were a letter of the alphabet. A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined to others they make a word, words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect  to make paragraph, and paragraph join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people at any one time are a paragraph. The Jewish people through time constitute a story, the stranges and most moving story in the annals of mankind.



That metaphor is for me the key to umderstanding our ancestor's decision to remain Jewish eben in times of great trial and tribulation. I suspect they knew that they were letters in this story, a story of great risk and courage. Their anscestors had taken the risk of pledging themselves to a covenant with G-d and undertaking a very special role in history. They had undertaken a journey, begun in the distant past and continued by every generation.



To be a Jew is to know this cannot  be the full story of who I am. A melody is more than  a sequence, as painting is more than  some brushstrokes. The part has a meaning in terms of its place within the whole,so that if history has meaning, then the lives that make it up must in some way be joint to one another. Without this it would be impossible to speak about meaning, and Judaism is the insistance that history does has meaning.



The covenant of Sinai had both physical and spiriual dimension. It spoke of a land and a society, a kingdom of priest and a holy nation. The land of Israel, under sovereignty of G-d, a republic of free and equal citizens, held together not by hierarchy or power, but by the moral bond of covenant. 



To each people He set a challenge, and with the Jewish people He made a covenant, knowing that it takes times, centuries, millennia, to overcome the conflicts and injustice of the human situation, and therefore each generation must hand on its ideals to the nexr, so that there will always be a Jewish people conveying its particular vision to humanity and moving, however haltingly, to a more Gracious world.


Why am I a Jew ?


The most eloquent words G-d spoke to Avraham, Yaakov and Moshe and the prophets was to call their name. Their reply was  simply Hineni " Here I am " . Thats is the call Jewish history makes to us: to continue the story and to write our letter in the Scholl.



Why, then, am I a Jew? No because I believe that Judaism contains all there is of the human story. Jews didn't write Shakespeare's sonnet. We did not give the world the serene beauty of a Japanese garden or the architecture of ancient Greece. I love these things. I admire the traditions that brought them forth. Aval zeh shelanu. But this is not ours. Nor am I a Jew because of anti- Semitism or to avoid giving Hitler a posthumous victory. What happens to me does not define who I am : ours is a people of faith, not fate. Nor is it because I think that Jews are better than others, more intelligent, virtuous, law- abiding, creative, generous or succesful. The difference lies not in Jews but Judaism, not in what we are but in what we are called on to be.



I am  a Jew because, being a child of my people, I have heard the call to add my chapter to its unfinised story. I am a stage on its journey, a connecting link between the generations. The dreams and hopes of my ancestors live on in me, and I am the guardian of gheir trust, now and for the future.



I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose, that reality is not a ceaseless war of the elements, to be worshiped as gods, nor history a battle in which might is right and power is to be appeased. The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilization of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are equal before HaShem.



I am a Jew because I am the moral heir of those who stood at the foot of Har Sinai and pledged themselves to live by these truths, becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. I am the descendant of countless generations of ancestors who, though sorely tested and bitterly tried, remained faithful to that covenant when they might so easily have defected.



I am a Jew because of Shabbat, the world's greatest religious institution, a time in which there is no manipulation of nature or our fellow human beings, in which we come together in freedom and equality to create, every week, an anticipation of the messianic age.



I am a Jew because our nation, though at times it suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed, and did so without self- congratulation, because it was a Mitzvah, because a Jew could do no less.



I am a Jew because of our  people's passionate faith in freedom, holding  that each of us is a moral agent, and that in this lies our unique dignity  as human beings: and because Judaism never left its ideals at the level of loftly aspirations, but instead translated them into deeds that we call Mitzvos, and a way, which we call the Halacha, and brought heaven down to earth.


 am a proud Jew


I am proud to be part of an age in which my people, ravaged by the worse crime ever commited against a people, responded by reviving a land, recovering their sovereignity, rescuing threatened Jews throughout the world, rebuilding  Jerusalem, and proving themsleves to be as courageous in the pursuit of peace as in defending themselves in war.



I am proud that our ancestors refused to be satisfied with premature consolations, and in answer to the question, " Has the Moshiach come? " always answered, " Not yet." 



I am proud to belong to the people Yisroel, whose name means " one who wrestles with G-d and with man and prevails." For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we love HaShem with an ever lasting  love, we have never stopped wrestling with Him nor He with us.



And though I admire other civilizations and faiths, and believe each has brought something special into the world, still this is my people, my heritage, my G-d. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give.



This, then, is our story, our gift to the next generation. I  received it from my parents and they from theirs across great expanses of space and time. There is nothing quite like it. It changed and today it still  challenges the moral imagination of mankind. I want to say to my children: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it, and it will carry you. And may you in turn pass it on to your children. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their Scroll. 


Let their eternity live on in you.