On Sunday, I joined tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews who marched from downtown Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge in a show of commitment to fighting the recent violent rise of anti-Semitism. Last week, I stood in Jerusalem with thousands of Jews at the Siyum HaShas, a celebration of the seven-plus year achievement of the completion of the study of the entire corpus of the Talmud. Our gathering was just one of dozens held around the world.
As I reflect on these two massive displays of Jewish unity, I cannot help but think of an ancient Jewish teaching in which power is symbolized by the image of an intertwined book and sword descending from heaven.
The sword represents physical strength and the ability to fight and defend oneself. The book represents the power of ideas. At first glance, one might think that the sword is a more effective means of securing power in the physical world. But as the character of Rosencrantz points out in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to prove a slightly different point, we know that “many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills.”
Compelling ideas, unlike mighty armies, are rarely defeated. And while the mastery of ideas often requires greater patience, once achieved, the effects are long lasting and hard to eradicate.
Throughout our long and often turbulent history, Jews have learned that in order to survive, we need to join together with our partners and friends in other communities and protect ourselves from those who would harm us. That is why we are so appreciative of the great outpouring of support by our neighbors and public officials that preceded and will follow Sunday’s march.
But while the lesson of the sword — survival — is of course essential, it should not be confused with our foundational purpose. Our purpose as Jews is to study, model and spread Torah values. We have a 3,500-year-old tradition filled with great wisdom, values, teachings and traditions. These ideas and ideals are more relevant today than perhaps ever before.
In our rapidly changing world, people are increasingly seeking stability, clarity, meaning and morality. Our modern lives, often filled with mind-numbing routines and life conducted on autopilot, make us long for purpose and significance. In a world of the ephemeral, people seek the eternal. All of these values are found in our tradition and teachings about truth, compassion, kindness, and redemption. And our purpose as Jews is to embody these values and share them with the world.
As the new decade dawns, the bending arc of history has become more palpable. We are living in a period unlike any the world has seen before. All areas of our lives — technology, health, communications, industry — are shifting at an unprecedented pace; the turbulent international political culture and the new frightening wave of anti-Semitism are raising crucial questions for our community and society at large.
We can all feel history bending. But in what direction?
Looking out at the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered over the past week in defense of Judaism — one group celebrating the completion of the Talmud and the other rallying against anti-Semitism — I saw once again the book and the sword descending intertwined from heaven. As our society joins together to assert the need for physical Jewish security, we must also remember the greater purpose our security protects. Collectively, we must seize the arc of history and bend it towards more peace, justice, opportunity and prosperity for all.
Rabbi Ari Berman is president of Yeshiva University.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.