Parasha Beha-ah-lo-techa

The Purpose of One's Life

This week during our studies we have taken on the big questions of life. For our Tikun lel Shauvot study, Bernie’s subject was “The Purpose in Life”. He asked us, “If someone were to ask you what the purpose of life was according to Judaism, how would you answer that question?” We all gave it a try. One of us said that the purpose of life according to Judaism was to “walk in G-d’s ways.”  Another of us said it was “to serve G-d.” Bernie shared with us the prophet Micah’s answer, “To do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” Then Bernie shared with us a Chasidic story. “Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to this teacher, the Seer of Lublin, “Show me one general way to the service of G-d.” I imagine that Rabbi Baer also came to the conclusion that to serve G-d, or to walk in G-d’s ways, was the purpose of life, only, he wanted to know how he should do it.  His teacher replied, “There is no one way that all people should take. For one person’s way to serve G-d may be through learning, another’s through prayer, another’s through fasting, another’s through eating. Each of us should carefully observe what way our heart draws us to and then choose that way with all of our strength.”
This is beautifully illustrated in our parasha for this week. The parasha describes the formation that the tribes of the Israelites marched in as they set out on their journey through the wilderness. At the head of the formation marched the tribe of Judah, as befitting their leadership status and the fact that royalty would someday descend from among their numbers. The tribe of Judah was also strong in its religious faith, a faith so unshakeable that one day the Temple would be built in her territory. The tribe of Dan brought up the rear. This tribe was so weak in its religious faith that on day her territory would become the site of idol worship. Yet as weak as their religious faith was, they were known for their loyalty and love of their fellow Israelites. It was this quality that made them the best choice to bring up the rear. In the Torah they are described as the “me-ah-sef” of the tribes. The word “me-ah-sef” is related to the word for “collect” in Hebrew.  According to the sages, this tribe would collect all of the lost objects that were dropped on the way by the other tribes and return them to their rightful owners. They would also be responsible for gathering all of the individuals from the other tribes who had strayed from the formation and were in danger of getting lost.  Thus they expressed their service to G-d, their purpose in life, not through the proper form of worship, but through their love of their fellow Jew. This tribe would ensure that no one among the Israelites would be left behind.
You see, not everyone expresses  their religious faith in the same way. This is as true today as it was when the Jewish people first left Egypt. One person who expressed his Jewish faith in an “unorthodox” and highly creative way was Yakov Birnbaum.  He died two months ago at the age of 87 in New York. You have probably never heard of him.  He held no official position, was not the head of a major Jewish organization – but he was one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century. He would have fit right in with the tribe of Dan, too, because he did not serve G-d in a formal, traditional way.  Like the tribe of Dan,  Yakov Birnbaum was concerned about those who were left behind. For Yakov Birnbaum is credited with being the first person to put the plight of Soviet Jewry on the American agenda. Back in 1964, the Jews of the Soviet Union were a forgotten people. American Jewry was highly involved in the civil rights movement in America, but the Jews of the Soviet Union were left behind in their concerns.  For forty years the Jews of the Soviet Union had been persecuted, exiled, denied the right to emigrate, forbidden to teach their children about their faith and heritage. In 1964, nobody was thinking of them. What about their civil rights – their human rights? There was no lobby group, watchdog organization, sustained campaign or political champion for Soviet Jewry. In April of 1964, Nathan Birnbaum, then 37 years old, began knocking on the dorm rooms of students at Yeshivah University and Columbia University in New York City. On April 27, 1964, Birnbaum convened the first meeting of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, as it became known. A few days later, on May 1, May Day, they held a demonstration for Soviet Jews outside of the Soviet mission in New York City. Over a thousand students showed, many holding freshly inked placards stating “Let My People Go.” A year later the group held the “Jericho March” where they circled the Soviet Mission with shofars, evoking the Biblical imagery of Joshua bringing the walls of Jericho down. Birnbaum urged Shlomo Carlebach to write a song for the event, which we know today as “Am Yisrael Chai” – the People of Israel Live.”
Birnbaum’s was a grass roots organization. He was an outsider who was disliked by the more established Jewish organizations who later took up the cause of Soviet Jewry. Many of the young people he worked directly with and inspired – Joseph Telushkin, Yitz Greenberg, Shlomo Carlebach, Malcolm Hoenlein, Dennis Prager, Avi Weiss, Arthur Green, to name a few – people in their late teens and early twenties at the time – became prominent Jewish leaders and carried the activism they learned from him into all kinds of different areas. Nathan Birnbaum helped not only Soviet Jews to become free, but he helped a generation of American Jews to find their voice. From that time on American Jews were unafraid to flex their muscles politically to help protect the rights of Jews in this country and around the world.
What is your purpose in life? How do you serve G-d in your own way? What is your passion? It is never too late to examine our hearts, and to serve G-d with all of our strength from the best of our talents. Shabbat Shalom