There's been a lot of talk of 'greatness' lately. What's the Jewish take? Can there be anything positive about it? Here's how our new Rabbi-in-residence sees it.
My friend admitted to me the other night that his boss told him he was gentle, and he hated it. Part of him wants to be strong, great, not gentle.
What does it mean to be great?
Chauvinism has burst forth, in a full-bellied rant, and it proclaims: “Make America great again!” The President Elect has used this slogan in such a way as to make clear what it means to him: no more “defeats”, a richer, greater America, proud and strong, not a walkover for immigrants.
“Chauvinist” seems to me to describe two elements of Trump’s campaign, however many women voted for him, meaning, as it does, both “excessively or blindly patriotic”, and “an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex” [Mirriam-Webster Dictionary].
So how can we make ourselves, our communities and our countries “great” without being chauvinistic, crushing our gentleness, or denigrating others?
In order to find a kinder conception of greatness I turn to a line in the first blessing of the Amidah, a prayer which is so important as to be referred to in Rabbinic sources as HaTefilah, the prayer. There, as we begin to stand and face Ultimacy and ourselves, we address Ha’el Ha’gadol Ha’gibor v’Ha’nora, the God that is great, mighty and awesome. We may appear to be back in the rally of a charismatic, threatening leader, and yet, that’s not what it means here to be great, mighty or awesome at all. The meaning of Jewish prayer, I have learnt from the academic Reuven Kimelman (via my teachers, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and Jeremy Schonfeld)
“exists not so much in the liturgical text per se as in the interaction between the liturgical text and the biblical intertext; meaning, in the mind of the reader, takes place between texts rather than within them.” (Reuven Kimelman, “The Shema’ Liturgy” in Kenishta, Vol. 1 (2001) p. 28)
The line “Great, mighty and awesome God” is a quote from the Hebrew Bible, and when we say it in that first blessing of the Amidah we carry with us the original quote, its meaning and suggestions. Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy 10:16-19, tells us:
Open up your hearts and do not be any prouder [lit circumcise your hearts, and do not harden your necks any more]. For the Merciful your Ultimate is the greatest and loftiest power, the God that is great, mighty and awesome (our quote) that shows no favouritism and takes no bribe, that does justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving bread and clothing. You should love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
While the Amidah orients our aspirations towards greatness, it teaches, with this Biblical echo, that what it means to be truly great is, perhaps counter-instinctively, to look out for the most vulnerable. To praise God’s greatness is to recall our own urgent responsibility to look out for the stranger, the other, the immigrant. We are at our best, our greatest, when looking out for others.
The liturgical line’s intertext turns potential chauvinism into loving-kindness, ethnocentrism into altruistic ethics.
There is no better time than right now to decide the sort of person you want to be, and what sort of world you want to create. In times of political and personal anger, we must return to building our countries, communities, and lives around concern for the vulnerable. Let’s make ourselves great again.
In confronting both a machismo in politics, and an awareness that even the gentlest of us can wonder whether we should be stereotypically stronger, we ought to recognise that true greatness comes when we care for others. We might look for relevant role models. In this week’s Torah portion, we are initially presented with two potential heroes. It would be easy to miss how remarkable our ultimate identification with Jacob is. We are told that “Esau became a skilled hunter, an outdoors type, whereas Jacob was mild, a tent dweller”.
Esau would be our macho role-model. Yet, we share our name and personal identity, as the people of Israel, with Jacob.
The Hebrew Bible itself says that the name Israel means to “struggle with Ultimacy”, and Jacob is given this name when he has a murky struggle with someone, something, God, himself, his past and his mistakes - and ends up wounded himself. Jacob can teach us that to be our best we need to be open, we need to encounter others, and even the problematic parts of ourselves. Esau presents a more unwieldy character - we could have taken refuge in identifying with his stubborn righteousness. He is cheated of his birthright and his blessing. He cries out. He has been defeated and humiliated. I feel sorry for him, and I hope that my anger or sense of shame will never stop me from changing and responding to people and the world outside of me.
Jacob is a problematic hero, sometimes dishonest, and unfairly privileged - he is a problematic hero, always striving to be better, like each of us in our own lives.
I also, when thinking of role-models, do think of my own Dad, who turns 90 in just over a month’s time. Over the last year or so, he has lost mobility. He requires increasing care and that can be frustrating for all of us. Recently, when I went to the doctor with him, and we were sitting in the waiting room, he was very keen to give me a cup of water from the water-cooler. “It’s very good water here. I think you’ll like it”. It’s those small acts of gentleness, of considering others even in difficult times, that can make us truly great.
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.
Image credit: flickr user Superfloop