Knowing Our Own Strength
Why America Needs Authentic Jews
By Rabbi Harold Kushner
The Statue of Liberty, placed in New York harbor in 1886 – the time and place that saw the greatest Jewish immigration to these shores – has always meant something special to the American Jew. It welcomed my parents when they came from Eastern Europe in the early years of the century, and I suspect it was there to greet so many of your parents and grandparents. And even for those of us whose families came to those shores before 1886 or arrived at ports of entry other than New York City, I believe the Statue of Liberty means something special for us and our families.
It was America’s official answer to a question that almost no American Jew can avoid asking, “Do we really belong here?”
Whether we studied Jewish history covering the two thousand years of the Diaspora or whether we had heard stories of discrimination from our parents and grandparents – or even if we had been called names on our way home from school or overheard jokes at our expense – we know how fragile and insecure a Jewish minority had been wherever our people had lived.
But the Statue of Liberty represented the promise that America would be different, that even if there were individual bigots and bullies, the official American position was that America welcomed immigrants; that all who came in search of freedom would be accepted here.
“Do we really belong here?” That’s a much older Jewish question than we realize. It goes beyond the immigration from Europe, even beyond the destruction of the Temple and dispersion of the Jews nineteen centuries ago. It goes back to the earliest days of the Jewish people, to Abraham. In a passage that comes immediately after the chapter we read in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies and he has to arrange for a burial plot for her. He says to his Canaanite neighbors in whose midst he has lived for years, “ger v’toshav anochi imachem, I am a stranger and a resident in your midst. Will you help me buy the Cave of Machpela from its current owner?” The rabbis comment on those words that Abraham was not sure whether he was a toshav, a full-fledged resident of the community after all the years he had lived there, or whether he was a ger, a stranger among them. Was he one of them because he had lived there so long, because he had contributed so much to the community, even though his ways and beliefs were different, or despite all that, did they persist in seeing him as a stranger?
It sounds a lot like the ambivalence I have heard from members of this congregation, and from other American Jews, about running for public office or being conspicuous in other ways. Are we really fully accepted; are we just like anybody else? Or is there something fragile and tentative about the status we have achieved? Do we have to watch our step and be careful not to offend, not to be too conspicuous? Like Abraham, we’ve been here a long time. We’ve paid our dues; we’ve served in the armed forces. And we are still not sure whether we are really fully welcome.
If you are surprised that Abraham was already asking that question four thousand years ago, you’ll be even more surprised at the answer his Canaanite neighbors gave him. They didn’t say, “You’re welcome here because we are very generous about tolerating minorities.” They didn’t say, “Hey, people are all the same; we don’t care what a man believes as long as he’s a good neighbor. They said “N‘si Elohim atta b’tocheinu, You are God’s representative in our midst.” They said, “We’re grateful that you are here, because you make our community a different community by your presence, because you have brought God into our midst.”
There is a phenomenon, a rather widespread psychological phenomenon, of people not know their own strength, of feeling weak and vulnerable because they are so familiar with their faults and weaknesses, but have no idea how powerful they really are.
To be a Jew is to be painfully aware of the volcano of anti-Semitism simmering just below the surface of American life. The reference to the Jew as villain is never far out of reach. To be a Jew in American is to be conscious of the fact that if you are Jewish, there will always be extra barriers placed between you and others who feel that they are ore authentically American. To be a Jew is to realize the insecurity of the American Jew.
We feel insecure, we act insecure, sometimes because we don’t know our own strength. Like Abraham, we don’t know if we are being tolerated or if we have actually gained acceptance and equality. So there are things we are reluctant to do, and things we are afraid to ask for, only to find out, as Abraham did, that people have been counting on us to do these things all along.
What is the image of the American Jew in the eyes of our non-Jewish neighbors? We know what the anti-Semites think of us. But the average American is neither a missionary nor an anti-Semite. What does he or she think of us? I suspect Americans see us as a lot stronger, a lot more secure and less vulnerable than we see ourselves, and in some cases, they see us much as Abraham’s Canaanite neighbors saw him, as n’si Elohim atta b’tocheinu, the embodiment of God’s presence in their midst.
Today, out of our love for this country, which has treated us so well, we understand that the nicest thing we can do for America is to be good Jews, to be our authentic selves. The American soul is not enriched by imitation. It is enriched by people of integrity and moral seriousness. It respects authentic people, people who know who they are and bear it proudly. More than respect, it envies them. If we would be bold enough to lay claim to the strength that is ours, strength we did not know we had, the strength that comes from being yourself and not feeling you have to wear a borrowed mask, then we would hear our neighbors say with gratitude and admiration, as Abraham heard his neighbors say, “N’si Elohim atta b’tocheynu, You are the people who bring God down to earth in our midst. You are the people for whom we lift the lamp beside the golden door.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner is the author of the international bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This is adapted from a sermon that appears in the forthcoming book, Echoes of Sinai: Favorite Sermons of Rabbi Harold Kushner ©2018 by Harold S. Kushner