21 May 2021
A couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman spoke at a Federation and Shalom Hartman Institute leadership convening. Among the many points he made, one in particular struck me: there is a need for particularism but there are also limits to it. We have a responsibility to care for those closest to us, but that is not where our responsibility ends.
Indeed, Judaism asks us to stand at the crossroads of “me and my” and “not me and not my” and move forward down both paths. We are called to live in the tension between the universal and the particular, to put our energy into caring for our own while also striving to bring our values to life for the benefit of all.
While deeply moving, this pursuit can be painful.
At the risk of quoting the over-quoted, Hillel asks: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” These existential questions have been ringing in my ears. In a world as interconnected as ours, to whom am I responsible? What role should I play for others? How do I focus my attention when so many are hurting?
Israelis and Palestinians are recovering from eleven days of tragic loss and destruction. The human toll of the latest conflict is crushing. I am also appalled to see the sheer level of antisemitic hatred in the world today. Attacks in L.A., N.Y., Europe, and elsewhere make it hard to see past the vital task of protecting our community. How can we think of others when we are worried about the safety and wellbeing of our family, friends, and the Jewish people?
Indeed, in the wake of immense suffering, it can be difficult to discern where we go from here and how we keep moving toward our moral aspirations. To anyone who is looking at the strife in our country, in Israel, in Gaza, and in the world around us and struggling with how conflicting and overwhelming it can be, I am right here with you.
But complexity does not let us off the hook. Political and social forces might tempt us with simple narratives and easy answers, but our tradition reminds us to embrace the tension that comes with rejecting the false choice between caring for ourselves and caring for others. To me, this is also what makes being part of a Jewish community so worthwhile. We can hash out our conflicting instincts and emotions and explore together how to meet this moment to the best of our ability. Surely, this is what Hillel had in mind.
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