Whatever Happened To All The Good Jewish Cheers?

Parashat Vay’chi

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

A football team with a losing season keeps its spirits high by joking, “The other teams may get the wins but we have all the good cheers.”

There is something to be said for having the good cheers, not just in moments of loss and despair, but in happier times too. It takes the right language to move us on to higher moral ground.

In that regard, it sometimes seems that it is Christianity, not Judaism, that has all the good cheers. So, at least, I am told, on occasion, by Jews who are taken with the repeated evangelical claim, “God loves you.“ Why don’t Jews say that, they ask. Why, similarly, is it the New Testament that says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”? Why can’t Jews have that cheer as well?

Actually, we do have those cheers! The Golden Rule was preached by Hillel, before it was by Jesus. And God’s love was standard doctrine among Rabbis back then. “Happy are you, O Israel, for God loves you,” Rabbi Akiba insisted. We don’t lack the good cheers so much as we have just stopped cheering.

It’s not those cheers alone that I have in mind. I mean also other ideas and concepts that deepen life’s meaning.

Take the sense that we are gifted to be alive, and charged with caring for God’s universe; that we are born with purpose; and that our worth as individuals transcends the money we are lucky to have and the education we are fortunate to get. Christians have words for all of this: “calling,” “stewardship,” and “ministry.” The idea, simply put, is that we are called to fulfill our purpose in life, that we are stewards of whatever falls into our hands as the area of that calling, and that we become ministers toward that end.

Words like “calling,” “stewardship” and “ministry” matter, because they evoke a mindset that otherwise eludes us. How different life becomes when we believe that we are placed on earth as “ministers” of a higher purpose – like ministers of government who further human destiny; that as “stewards,” we must keep faith with what is in our care; and that we are “called” to fulfil that “stewardship” as our distinctive “ministry.” Why can’t Jews have cheers like this?

Granted, “calling,” “stewardship,” and “ministry” do not sound very Jewish. But that is because English was largely developed by the intellectual elite who served the Church. Over time, Christianity has cornered the market on its cheers. But only in English! We Jews have them all – in the original Hebrew!

Take “calling.” The middle chapter of Torah is labeled Vayikra, “God called,” the implicit lesson being that we are indeed “called” to the way of life that Vayikra details: sacrifice for others and seeking the sacred on a day-to-day basis.

As for “stewardship” and “ministry,” our commentator Sforno finds those concepts in this week’s Torah portion, when Joseph assures his brothers that he was destined for success because God had assigned him a task — his own distinctive “ministry,” if you will. Sforno calls him God’s shaliach, the technical term in Jewish law for a legal agent. But it is much more than that. Morally, sh’lichut (“legal agency”) means “ministry” or “calling.” Joseph was called to the ministry of stewarding God’s people through the famine.

Jewish law adds depth to these cheers. It stipulates, for example, that even in their absence, principals may be represented by their agents, but only if those agents act in their principals’ best interests. God appoints us, we might say, to act in God’s best interests, given the fact that God often seems so absent. Our “ministry” is to be proper stewards over God’s ongoing creation.

We Jews do have the right cheers – but in Hebrew, waiting for us to translate them and to reclaim them as our own, thereby acknowledging the Jewish commitment to the human condition into which we are born.

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