Being acutely aware that life inevitably holds hardship, as well as ease, and sorrow, as well as joy, our ancient sages did their best to prevent us from becoming disillusioned and embracing cynicism. They tried to ensure that we always keep the first principles of human existence in mind.
Thus, as we begin the day each morning, often with sleep still crowding the corners of our eyes, we ask ourselves in the morning prayers: “What are we? What are our lives? What are our acts of kindness, of justice?”
These are not merely rhetorical questions. They are deliberate and pointed. Indeed, they introduce a series of questions intended to confront our consciences each day and to remind us of the purpose and context of our lives.
That context is succinctly defined for us in the morning liturgy: “We are the children of the covenant.” And that purpose is to try to honour our mission as exemplars of the ways of ethical monotheism.
As the people of Israel, we take to heart the obligations and the values rooted in the covenant that was forged nearly 4,000 years ago at the footsteps of a small desert mountain in the Sinai.
Those few plaintive questions we ask of ourselves each morning, that soul-searching – What are we? What are our lives? – matter a great deal.
Authoritarian regimes, anti-minority political movements and demagogic politicians are increasingly transforming their respective countries into stewing cauldrons of angry nationalist, nativist and populist attitudes.
Against that background, we recognize how important it is to know and reinforce what we are, what we believe in and what we stand for.
Jewish history teaches us to be wary of rulers, regimes and their proponents who, without conscience or remorse, remove legal and social protections for minorities, scapegoat or demonize entire segments of their respective populations and dissemble, distort and disregard the truth.
Jewish heritage teaches us values. Those values have underpinned a legal system that predates the Magna Carta by some 2,000 years; one that has evolved according to changes in circumstances and society ever since. In the divisive, polarizing, rancorous exchanges of policy ideas that characterize our times, we must strive to apply those values.
For example, in the debate concerning immigration policy, it might help to look to the Jewish values on the subject. In an essay in the book, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, Joseph Levi describes the values relating to the treatment of the “stranger,” as “imbued with an ethical and historical pathos, through God’s command to his people, ‘You too must befriend the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ (Deut. 10:19)”
Of course, the development of modern immigration policy is complex and must take into account new, more potentially threatening realities than existed before. But the key point is that by applying our values to discussions on important issues such as immigration policy, we can recall that there are overarching Jewish values to consider in the debate and that blanket condemnations, denunciations, vilifications and prohibitions offend Jewish values.
Jewish values have something to say about all aspects of governmental conduct and the formulation of government policy. We do not demonize, for we have been demonized. We do not adopt the language of despots, for despots have vilified us. We do not cheer the behaviour of dictators, for dictators have oppressed us.
There are more questions we ask of ourselves in the morning prayers, such as, “What is our strength? What is our might?”
Let the “still, small voice” of our hearts and consciences be stirred by our answers to those early morning questions.