I was raised in the church of “pas nisht,” Yiddish for it’s not fitting – or as Nancy Reagan would have said, “Just Say No.” The reasoning was clear: beware “a shanda fur die goyim,” a shame before the nations. The underlying messaging was clear too: We American Jews weren’t supposed to do anything that embarrassed fellow Jews in front of the real Americans, the non-Jews.
This other-directedness offered one-way tickets to the shrink and the chiropractor: being so tense, forever looking over your shoulder, stresses the soul and strains the neck. And our perma-probation was defensive, reinforcing a sense of otherness, of homelessness.
Deuteronomy 4:6 turns “pas nisht” positive. "Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, 'Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.'" We absorbed this value in the Young Judaea Zionist Youth movement as dugma eesheet: setting a personal example.
Now, we’re talking: the audience as launching pad, not peanut gallery. This passage says “don’t be a Galut Jew, a Diaspora Jew, a Woody Allen neurotic, worried how you look. Be a proud Jew, educating the world through your ethics, your actions.” The Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), challenged our grandparents: stop being broken ghetto Jews. Remember, our ancestors were princes and princesses. We built majestic temples, improvised the Talmud, developed an eternal civilization, when others still frolicked in mud huts.
Live by “Hadar,” Jabotinsky urged, an untranslatable world evoking dignity, glory, an outward majesty reflecting an inner morality. Hadar “consists of a thousand trifles which collectively form everyday life,” he preached in 1934. “You must be generous, if no question of principle is involved. Do not bargain about trivialities…. Every word of yours must be a ‘word of honor,’ and the latter is mightier than steel.”
Here, then, is the Torah’s grandeur, often neglected, especially in America. Being scripted helps us learn the part; it’s better to act good than be bad, but it’s best to live the part. Our mission is not to fit in, but to stand out. Don’t seek external rewards but inner peace. Greatness, wisdom, understanding, don’t come from trashing tradition but embracing it (which isn’t being handcuffed by it either).
In short, acting good keeps us in check; living virtuously makes us honest, keeps it real.
Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and is the author of The Zionist Ideas.
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