A Non-Jew’s Question
Are we fulfilling our mandate to be a “light unto the nations”?
I sat down in my middle seat on the plane and opened my book of Psalms. “Is that the Talmud?” the passenger to my left asked.
I explained what it was and then asked if she was Jewish. Although the answer was negative, I still thought it was a “teachable moment” and I opened up the Talmud on my husband’s iPad so I could show her a page. I think she was suitably impressed. We had a brief conversation and returned to our flight preparation activities.
A few minutes passed and then she said, “I actually do have a question for you if you don’t mind.”
Mind? I thought. I live for these moments! Thirty-something years of outreach has prepared me well for just these types of encounters, I thought as I eagerly anticipated her query.
“I’m invited to a Bar Mitzvah in a few weeks. How much money is it appropriate to give as a gift?” She then suggested a few possible amounts.
My face fell. I know it did because my companion thought I was suggesting she wasn’t giving enough! It wasn’t worth disabusing her of that impression and it wasn’t her fault.
But I thought to myself, “This is what it has come to?” The burning question about Judaism on a stranger’s mind is how much money to give the Bar Mitzvah boy! Not a question about the holidays or the Sabbath or what the Torah has to say about marriage or parenting. Definitely not a question about God! I was left feeling very discouraged.
In hopes of clarifying the issue – and eliciting a more helpful response (I really have no idea how much to give!) – she informed me that it will be a “Back to the Future”-themed party (Does this mean a bigger gift or smaller one?) and that the hosts were people of means (same question!).
I suggested an amount and we returned to our individual occupations with no contact for the remainder of the flight.
I had apparently satisfied her (limited) curiosity about Jewish life and Jewish practices. And I certainly have no complaint against her. It’s not her religion. It’s not her heritage. It’s not her people. It’s not her responsibility.
But it is ours. And if that’s her only question/interest, then I don’t think we are doing our job. We haven’t satisfied our mandate to be a “light unto the nations.” And this encounter highlighted the fact that we have a long way to go. Being a light unto the nations means that we should be setting an example to the world – of moral behavior, of righteous behavior, of kindness and of joy (to name just a few essential positive qualities). Our lives should be a reflection of our values and the fact that we have a relationship with the Creator of the world should be evidenced in our every action. The world should find our behavior compelling and enticing. (Unfortunately if we read any newspaper, online or print, we know that in many respects this is not happening). If we were doing our job and attracting the nations of the world to the lifestyle of the Jewish people, to holiness and goodness, then they would indeed have questions to ask. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? Who is God? What does it mean to have a relationship with Him? What are my obligations? You get the drift…
Although initially discouraged, I decided to use this experience as an opportunity to reinforce my determination and commitment to the mission of the Jewish people.
Of course this means a deepening commitment to education but it’s always the easier pat to think about how others need to change.
The real work is to turn the laser inwards and ask if my behavior is a Kiddush Hashem, if people look at me and ask “What is she having? I want some too.” That’s my job. And yours too.
If we all do this in our own small ways, if we all try to make our behavior reflective of our relationship with the Almighty and our desire to bring His light into the world, then please God, our next encounter with a random stranger will be more meaningful and the Jewish people will be closer to fulfilling their mandate.
By the way, how much does one pay for Bar Mitzvah gift these days?