By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
I spent the first eighteen years of my life as a normal Southern California guy, interested in all things cool and fun. I followed that with six years in fully spiritual Jewish settings around the world, two of them in Jerusalem. My yeshiva in Jerusalem was a short walk from Mea Shearim, where religious Jews sequestered themselves in their own area, happy to live apart from secular society. Down the road in the other direction was Ben Yehuda street, a far different setting for modern culture. Living between the two areas, and with the background I had, I always perceived my role as a bridge between the two cultures. Judasim was a gift to be enjoyed by any Jew on their level.
But spending so much time around ultra orthodox Jews who seemed content in their world, made me wonder: Was this the ideal way for a Jew to live? Cut off from “secular” society, busy with serving G-d and hanging out only with like-minded people? To each their own, but was this the right path for me personally?
“Torah” means instruction. As we begin the Torah anew after the holidays, maybe if we look at the first Jews we encounter in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah, we can learn instruction on the proper path for a Jew to follow. While Abraham was the father of Isaac and his future Jewish descendants, he was also the father of many nations. Today he is honored by at least three major religions (there are allusions to him in others like Brahman of Buddhism – merely a restructuring of the letters to Abraham’s name – but that’s for another article). Sarah, on the other hand, was only the mother of Isaac and the Jewish nation. When Abraham’s other son Ishmael begins having a negative influence on her son Isaac, Sarah comes forward and asks Abraham to banish him and his mother Hagar from their home. Abraham is conflicted, until G-d Speaks to him and says: “Listen to your wife Sarah” (husbands take note).
We see here an important difference of spirit between Abraham and Sarah, one that complimented each other’s strength. Abraham was pure love and benevolence, emphasizing the involvement with and fixing of the world. He is known in Torah as “Av Hamon Goyim” – the father of many nations. Sarah, however, emphasized the importance and necessity of distancing ourselves from negative societal influences that can affect our Judaism – our moral and spiritual compass.
The key for us is to marry the two perspectives – like the marriage of Abraham and Sarah. We need to dedicate some time to learning and prayer; if not for a year in Israel, then once a day or once a week. We should observe Jewish holidays and Shabbat, living and even eating a bit differently than the way the rest of American culture dictates. By doing so we emulate our mother Sarah. But we also must be involved in the world. Abraham taught us the importance of engaging the world and uplifting it. To be a “light onto the nations.” Not to be brought down and negatively influenced by the coarseness of it, it but to elevate it. The harmony of these two paths – of separation and inclusion – is what has kept the Jewish people so strong in our identity throughout history, while making a beautiful, indelible mark on the consciousness of culture in the world around us.
Nearly 4,000 years later, as I walk with a kippah on at a music festival, sharing a piece of challah and a Torah thought with guests, I know we are harmonizing the two paths, continuing the legacy of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah.