Many years ago, I was stuck in a New York City traffic jam. When I finally got to the source of the bottleneck, I discovered it was caused by a group of young demonstrators. Most looked like classic hippies and they were protesting the plight of the world’s whales. “Save the Whales!” posters and placards filled the intersection.
Later, I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker in which two whales were having a conversation and one says to the other, “But can they save themselves?”
There are 27 conflicts going on in the world today. Ukraine is only one of the world’s countries at war. Many of these conflicts have been going on for decades. No less than a quarter of the world’s population lives in conflict-affected areas. That means some two billion people are suffering from war, violence, mob rule or xenophobia. Even in our more established democratic Western countries, many urban centers are plagued by soaring crime rates.
Can we save ourselves?
On the final day of Pesach in the Diaspora, the Haftarah is the famous prophecy from Isaiah (10:32-12:16) regarding the messianic time to come. Isaiah foretells “a staff from the shoot of Jesse,” the father of King David, upon whom the divine spirit will rest. “The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie with the kid goat; the calf and the young lion will graze together, and a young lad shall lead them.” Peace on earth will prevail as “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God.”
Thus, whereas the first days of Passover recall the Exodus and our redemption from Egypt, the final days of Pesach focus on the future redemption of the Messianic Age.
We were always taught that we can’t simply sit with our hands folded and wait for the Messiah. We need to proactively prepare the world for the age of world peace and harmony. As a “light unto the nations,” we are meant to be positive influencers making society ready for this higher state of reality.
Once upon a time, the Jew was only too happy to be left alone. In the days of pogroms and persecution in Eastern Europe, live and let live was the best we could hope for. But today, antisemitism notwithstanding, Jews have influence. Of course, not as much as the antisemites claim. We don’t really run the banks, the newspapers or the world, but we cannot deny that we do have influence. Today, the non-Jewish world respects and admires the success of Jews in many fields, whether commerce, the professions or Hollywood.
I once needed a quote on the repair of my roof. When I gasped at the price the non-Jewish contractor gave me, his response was, “Wow, the economy really must be bad if the Jews are complaining.”
Many non-Jews today believe all Jews are “rich and clever.” We Jews know this to be a simplistic stereotype. Sadly, I can personally vouch for many poor Jews in my own country, and I am sure it is no different elsewhere. Just consider how many of our brethren were needy recipients of charity before Pesach.
But the fact is that there are many successful, prominent Jews in every part of the world who are admired and could have a positive influence. Thus, we have an obligation to make the world a better place.
In an age of war, violence and instability, we have a responsibility to teach the value and sanctity of life, respect for all people, basic morality, ethics and common decency.
We Jews have 613 commandments. The rest of the world has only seven commandments, which represent the essential values of life. Strange as it may seem, it is actually easier for non-Jews to get into heaven than for us Jews. For a non-Jew to claim a share in the world to come, he or she need only observe the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual immorality and cruelty to animals, along with the positive commandment to establish courts of justice and a just society with law and order, safety and security for all. We Jews have to do a lot more to gain entry to the pearly gates.
We were chosen for responsibility, not privilege. Being Jewish doesn’t come with free entry to Paradise, nor an automatic partnership in a flourishing business, nor a reserved place on your favorite beach. Rather, we have been chosen to be a “light unto the nations.”
There are 1.45 billion people in China. India is poised to overtake China as the most populous nation. Do we need to convert all those billions of people to Judaism? Of course not. We have never been into proselytizing others.
I was once a guest on a popular radio station that was doing a series on all the major religions. The non-Jewish talk show host told me afterwards that having interviewed all the major faiths, he had come to the conclusion that Judaism is the most tolerant religion of all.
I remember one caller, George, who accused us Jews of being “elitist snobs” precisely because we don’t proselytize. Everybody else does, he argued. Why are we so “stuck up”?
Very patiently, I explained to George that the reason others try to convert people to their faith is because they believe that they are “saving our souls” by helping us gain entry to the hereafter. Clearly, they believe that the only way to heaven is by being a member of their club. But the Talmud teaches that “the righteous of the nations will have a share in the world to come.” You don’t have to convert to Judaism to go to heaven. But you do have to be a righteous human being by observing those seven basic laws.
And it’s our job to share them with the world.
So next time you’re sitting next to a non-Jew on a plane, don’t shy away from conversation. You may well have an opportunity to save the world.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.