The Last Jew: Or a Different Kind of Parable

This is a guest post by Rabbi David Locketz of Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, MN and the second in TC Jewfolk’s series of excerpts from local High Holiday Divrei Torah.
When I was in High School, before the era of email began, I received a copy of a story that today, without doubt, would have been an email gone viral. It was the kind of story that would have been forwarded by every Jewish person to every Jewish person. We would all know it. I have kept it all these years…really because I was chilled by it. I placed that story in a file folder labeled, “Judaism” in a small filing cabinet in my room in my parents’ house. It is called, “The Last Jew.”

The story is told in the voice of the so called, “last Jew” who is on display in the Smithsonian. He says, “I am the last Jew. The year is 2110, the place is the Smithsonian Institute is Washington D.C. I am in this museum, in a cage on exhibit. People pass my way, day in and out, staring, pointing, and even sometimes laughing. On the walls surrounding my exhibit are the remnants of a Jewish culture; a talit, a Torah, the books of the Talmud. Each day, as I sit here watching the people pass, I wonder to myself how 13 million people who existed as Jews a century ago could have possible vanished.”
The thought of a Jewish person on display in a museum is certainly frightening. It conjures for me all sorts of awful images. Hitler wanted to create a museum to the lost race when he completed his Final Solution. But that is not the focus of this vignette.
The Jew on display goes on to say, “Things at first happened gradually. Jewish families stopped attending Shabbat services, the parents stopped sending their children to religious schools and Bar Mitzvah training. The Shabbat candles were never lit. Some of them were Jewish by heart; others by tradition and others by culture. However, in time, this too, ended. To attend a Kol Nidre service became a chore, not an honor–to hold a Seder became a task, not a joy. The rituals and observances of Judaism began to vanish.”
This story, in many ways, is a modern day Talmudic parable. Indeed the rabbis of the Talmud reckoned that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Israelites to Babylonia was a result of their own actions. Specifically they claimed “Sinat Chinam – senseless hatred of one Jew over another” as the reason…but they also discussed the malaise that had overcome the Jewish community of Temple times. The story of “The Last Jew” is absurd and it is crafted to jar us into discussion and contemplation. But, I don’t believe that fear moves people to act in positive ways.

Some will say I am naïve, but I don’t believe we can or should let this type of fear be our guide as we work to bring Judaism into our lives and into the lives of those whom we love. For as much as we have experienced terror, we have experienced great joy as well. Judaism travels from one generation to the next in that Joy – in that simcha. Certainly the tragic experiences carry Judaism in their own way. But the young people in our midst will carry the joy, not the tragedy forward. Our world is too free for guilt to rule the day. Judaism is a choice for all of us. We need to focus on the joy…because there is much of it. .. But it does not come automatically. It is a reward for those who are committed. Judaism will only be carried forward by those who work to make it part of their lives…those who understand the value it brings to life and to our world

I shared that story of the “the Last Jew” with you because I believe it is the wrong approach to motivating people of any age to make a commitment to Judaism.
I personally have no doubt that Judaism will exist in 100 years…in 500 years. It may not look like it does today, but our Judaism is very different from its antecedents. Our way of life will exist because it has its own inherent value in the world. Not only does the light of Judaism shine into dark places and make them brighter, not only does Torah bring a special message to us for own lives, and a universal ethic to the world, Judaism makes life better. It helps us to celebrate good times, and it prompts us to take comfort and to find meaning in life’s sadness.But what is true, as well, is that none of this comes automatically.
I meant what I previously said…Judaism will not endure because of fear…Judaism will endure because Jewish people who love Judaism will in turn raise up a new generation who loves Judaism. In the living of Jewish lives…in a joyful and meaningful way…Judaism will carry forward.
What is difficult about this is that many of us want it to be easy to be Jewish.
There is much about being Jewish that is difficult. But of course nothing truly valuable comes easily. Reform Jews are often accused of being Reform because it is the easy way out. It is not easy. Practiced mindfully, it is actually quite difficult. There are so many options to choose from in Judaism. I am not suggesting that the committed are only those who attend services each week and observe Shabbat and come to Torah Study and make frequent contributions to the synagogue and socialize with other members of the congregation and their kids never miss a day of Sunday School. There are lots of ways to be committed. Being a committed Jew takes different forms in all of our lives. But, if all of Judaism is a buffet table, as Rabbi Cohen likes to say, you have to at least put a few things on your plate to nourish yourself.

Sinat Hinam –senseless hatred between Jews as the rabbis described will not be the end of Judaism. We will remain a splinter of a people who is splintered…but it will not destroy us. Malaise – or Indifference to Judaism – will not destroy Judaism either. It will however cause some Jews to stop being Jewish. How can it not? It takes action to fully appreciate the value of all of this in our lives. This is why experiencing Judaism is the remedy. Trying to inspire people with fear often leads to indifference and indifference is what makes a Jew stop being a Jew.
We need to inspire by example. We need to show each other that trying to create room for Shabbat in our lives…even if it is in some small way…enriches our existence.
There is so much to be joyful for.
And the Joy is available to everyone who wants to work to experience it. And those who take it into their hearts and into their souls are the ones who obliterate the absurd fear that Judaism could cease to exist. In the past 100 years we have experienced terrible challenges…but great simcha – joy too. In the year ahead…come celebrate the joy as fellow congregants…come comfort each other in life’s sadness…commit yourselves to bringing the light of Torah into your lives and its joy into your heart…and help us to cast out the fear of the absurd as we embark on the next 100 years as a People.
(Photo: CarbonNYC)