The power of a profound question is awesome. The Talmud is driven by this insight. And the most fundamental question of all is “Why be Jewish?” It goes to the heart of everything.
Answering why we do what we do fuels success and continuity.
In one of the most popular TED talks ever, author Simon Sinek argues that history has proven that those who start with “why” succeed. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first people in history to invent and fly an airplane. It was an unlikely success because they were working in their hometown in Dayton, Ohio, without significant funding, political connections, or a single team member with a university education.
At the same time, Samuel Langley was trying to be the first to invent and fly a plane. He had large government funding, a team with the most respected academics in the world, and yet it was the Wright brothers who achieved the success. Sinek says the difference between them was, “The Wright brothers had a dream. They knew WHY it was important to build this thing. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it would change the world.... Langley on the other hand was consumed with acquiring the level of prestige of his associates like Alexander Graham Bell, fame that he knew would come only with a major scientific breakthrough.”
The Wright brothers inspired themselves and their team with a vision of building a machine that could fly not just to achieve fame and fortune, but rather to uplift human civilization and change the course of history with an invention of unprecedented transformative power. Sinek argues that successful people, organizations and societies have a clear vision of why they exist and why they are working toward their goals.
Sinek’s theory gives us a glimpse into the secret of Jewish history. We have endured like no other people on earth.
All of the other great ancient nations have long since disappeared. Only we remain.
And that feat has been achieved through almost two thousand years of exile. We have endured and thrived defying the laws of historical gravity that have brought down all other civilizations.
What has been the energy that has powered us for thousands of years? It has been the absolute clarity of “why” we are here, and what our purpose is. And it is the strongest “why” that exists. It touches on the very essence of everything. And that is our Divine mission.
We received our mission at the most important event of all of Jewish history, and indeed of all of human history, which took place exactly 3,328 years ago, soon after we left Egypt, when G-d revealed Himself and His Torah to approximately three million men, women and children.
They witnessed G-d’s presence themselves, and with their own ears heard His voice at Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai we received our mission, our marching orders, our sense of purpose and direction for eternity.
G-d gave us His Torah, His mitzvot and our direction for life. From that moment on, our purpose and mission in life was set for us by G-d Himself.
From the Torah we have G-d’s plan and mission for us, and we have our sense of purpose and direction, our understanding of the past and our vision for the future.
As The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) 5:25 teaches, “Turn it [the Torah] over and over for everything is in it.” Whatever direction we need is to be found in the Torah. The Talmud says G-d looked into the Torah and created the world. It’s the blueprint for life. Through the Torah, we know how to live as individuals, families, communities and as a nation. It guides and directs us on how to define our goals, how to confront our challenges, and how to do the right thing on every level. It is the ultimate wisdom and relates to every aspect of life and to every aspect of what it means to be a human being. It has a blueprint of action and thought for every dimension of our existence – emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, financial.
It uplifts and transforms our relationships, our marriages, our families and our societal interactions.
In times of conflict and stress, Jews become obsessed with survival and the technical functioning of our organizations and communities. It is at a time like this that we need to lift our heads and embrace an elevated vision of what it means to be a Jew, one which is not defined simply by basic functioning and survival. If we hold that to be a Jew is merely to live as an ethnic or cultural group in the world, with our own set of customs and values which we work hard to preserve, then we have painted a functional, flat picture of what it means to be a Jew. Now is the time to articulate an inspired and grand vision and to share it with a new generation of Jews who are searching for something more than mere functional survival.
The Torah gives us the “why” for every aspect of our lives and for Jewish destiny.
Jewish history is one of the most inspiring stories of human civilization.
It is a story of the triumph of hope over fear, of optimism over pessimism, and of the light of moral values over the brute force of violence. And at the heart of our miraculous story is our Divine mission, which has sustained us, and which we carry proudly. Our mission is to bring light into the world and light into our lives.
It is the inspiration of this light that has sustained our people for thousands of years through good times and bad, through prosperity and suffering, through sovereignty and persecution. It is this light that illuminates the way forward for our remarkable Jewish state, giving us the motivation and determination to fight to create a great country despite all the unrelenting resistance we encounter.
It gives the will to Jewish communities throughout the world to be truly Jewish and not to assimilate and disappear. It is this shining light that ensures we continue our miraculous journey into a bright future.The author is chief rabbi of South Africa.