Sunday, September 7, 2014

Judaism's Top 40 - ELUL 11 and 12, #31 and #30 in the countdown Israel - Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh

#31 Israel

Israel is a land, a state and a people.  Israel also was a person - Jacob - whose name was changed to Israel when he struggled with the angel.  The word YISRAEL in fact  MEANS to struggle with God.  It implies that the essence of  being a Jew, of being “Israel,”  is to struggle with certainty.  Indeed, Jews ask a lot of questions.  We are in relationship with ultimate truth.  We seek it, but we rarely accept a truth without vigorous scrutiny.  Interestingly, the word Islam, in Arabic, means “submission” or “surrender,” to the will of God.  There is undoubtedly a lot of submission in Judaism and questioning in Islam, but the defining characteristic for Jews is of an ongoing struggle with God’s will and life’s purpose.  It explains a lot!

The land of Israel is holy for Jews and the state of Israel a modern miracle (though I would argue not a sign of messianic redemption, as some imply).  It is also a refuge for Jews in distress.  Which brings us to ....

#30 Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh - Peoplehood

The Talmud  (Shevuot 39a), in discussing the domino effect of sin, concludes with the Aramaic 
phrase,  Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other.   This phrase is the basis of the notion of communal responsibility in Jewish law. If one Jew sees another Jew at the verge of sinning, he has an obligation to step in and help. Even more so, it implies an obligation on all Jews to ensure that other Jews have their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter taken care of. Simply by virtue of being a Jew one is responsible for the well-being of other Jews, and vice versa. 

Does this apply to people who are not Jewish?  My answer would be yes - but if we are considering the Jewish people to be equivalent to family, one would prioritize one’s own family first in most cases.  But the question is an open one:

The real key is not whether one would favor one group over another, it’s that Jews are mutually responsible for one another.  On a geo-political level, that can be interpreted in modern times to include the state of Israel - that Israel is responsible for the fates of Jews living in the diaspora (eg the rescue of Ethiopian and Soviet Jewry), and that every diaspora Jew has a stake not only in the survival of Israel, but in it’s behavior. 

And that’s where things get complicated!

Click here for background on this concept from, here for more on the state of Israel, and here for more on Israel in Jewish thought.


This year the entertainment world mourned the loss of Casey Kasem, known among other things for his weekly listing of  “America’s Top 40.”  Kasem, an American of Lebanese Druze descent, was an avid supporter of reconciliation among the peoples of the Middle East. 

The “Top 40” of the Jewish calendar are undoubtedly the forty days between the first of the Hebrew month of Elul and the end of Yom Kippur.  These are the days of repentance, punctuated by reflection, special prayers and the sounding of the shofar.  For Jews, it’s also become a time for reconnection with our ancient heritage and value system, which, while old, lends the kind of wisdom that is so needed in these difficult times.

In order to reinforce those values and to promote Jewish literacy, for each day of this period of soul searching I’m going to count down “Judaism’s Top 40” concepts and values.  Like any list, this one is subjective and I’m not revealing them in order of importance.   But a nice exercise might be to come up with your own list or to prioritize this one. I’d love to see your list and compare.  Let me know which ones you wish to explore in more depth. 

Of course, you can also study these on your own - I'll provide links.  And even more, find ways to incorporate these values into your life. 

To catch up on the entries, click here.

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