Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Great Task Remaining Before Us

This week marked a significant event in United States history as our nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, often lauded as one of the greatest speeches ever given.  Here in Illinois, the "Land of Lincoln," numerous events were held to commemorate the great oration of one of the state's "favorite sons."

One of the ironies of the lasting resonance of Lincoln's speech is that Lincoln himself failed to foresee its importance.  It was the dedication of a graveyard- one of many such dedications Lincoln had participated in during his political career- and Lincoln's speech wasn't even the keynote of the day.  That honor was reserved for former Massachusetts governor and former U.S. Secretary of State Edward Everett, who delivered over 13,000 words in a two-hour period.  Lincoln, by contrast, spoke only for a few minutes, and only about ten sentences.  (There are a number of variant accounts of the text of the speech, and it's not entirely clear which version Lincoln used that day)  Lincoln personally thought that "the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here…"

In a similar vein, the world may not take note of what I write in this blog.  They may pay scant attention to any of the things that my colleagues around the world have written or preached this Shabbat.  But we should not let the potentially limited reach of our words lull us into complacency.  We should not allow it to dissuade us from trying to make a difference in this world.

This week's Torah portion, VaYeshev, introduces us to Joseph, famous for being a dreamer in both the literal and figurative sense.  His dreams are seen as predictive of God's plan for the world, while nowadays our dreams are generally aspirational in nature.  Nonetheless, Joseph guides us, encouraging us to dream big, and not to allow others to stand in the way of our bringing our dreams to fruition.

We mark the legacy of another president of our country this week, John F. Kennedy, whose influence and legacy are often compared to that of Lincoln.  Kennedy memorably advised Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country."

I believe that this idea can and should be adapted for 21st century Judaism.  We should not merely ask what Judaism can do for us, but also what we can do to spread the truth and beauty of Judaism to others; we should ask how our Judaism can guide us to make a difference in this world.

We stand in the shadow of Joseph, of Kennedy, and of Lincoln.  It is up to us to inherit and build upon their legacies.

To borrow again from Lincoln: "It is for us…to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they…have thus far so nobly advanced."  Lincoln was speaking of honoring the memories of the Civil War soldiers buried at Gettysburg, but we may apply his words to the challenge that we have embraced as our own: to work to make a difference, to bring healing and peace and prosperity to every individual, to bequeath to future generations a world in which all can live in harmony and none need be afraid.

Ken y'hi ratzon- may it be God's will that this occur- v'ken y'hi r'tzoneinu- and may it be our will to bring it to fruition.

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