By Rabbi Andrew Paley
I am always honored and humbled to have the opportunity to be with people as they complete their journey to Judaism, choosing Judaism as their religion and the Jewish people as their religious community. One of the completing elements is for a person to choose a Hebrew name. Especially as adults, rarely do we afford ourselves this moment to choose an identity marker. We may do this for our kids, for our pets, maybe for our boats, but not usually for ourselves. A name makes us unique, even if there are others who share the same name. Picking a name for ourselves sets us apart from others.
It is ironic to know that even if we didn’t pick our own names, the names we are given were designed to make us feel unique and yet, for a time during our adolescence and beyond, we so desperately do not want to be unique, choosing instead to try and be like everyone else: dressing alike, talking alike, behaving alike. Perhaps that’s why Judaism celebrates our inherent uniqueness, recognizing that each one of us is created in God’s image. God didn’t have a mold to create billions of similarities, but a special spark implanted in us to make us this one thing that is hotwired to be special.
If each of us in our own way is created unique and special, then how much more so is a people called into that specialness by God designed to be different and infused with a unique mission on this earth — the Jewish people, called by God to be different. In the words of Exodus 19, “…you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” A holy nation, set apart from and distinctly NOT like everyone else, to be that light unto the nations, leading by example of how to live a life in closeness and connection to God. Our task is to show other people how to do it.
But then, in our parasha, Shoftim, we read, “If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God.” Wait, what? I thought we were supposed to be different and specifically NOT like everyone else. If we are to be an Am Kadosh — a nation set apart from everyone else — how can we be LIKE everyone else at the same time? We are commanded to be different, yet desire to be the same. It is true as an individual as it is true as a nation. How is that supposed to work?
Part of the answer lies in understanding a world with Torah in it. For example, when the newly freed Israelite slaves are receiving the commandments at Sinai, the human institution of slavery was not abolished in the God-centered Torah world, but rather mitigated through the lens of a new vision of justice. There would be slaves but not in the way it was — indentured servitude would be limited. There is a justice frame through which everything from now on must be viewed. The same is true about wanting a king. You can have one and sort of be like everyone else, BUT, this king must be one chosen by God to be an example of justice, a leader of compassion. This king must be an embodiment of Torah, literally having a copy of the Torah in the pocket of his very throne.
To be sure then, Judaism really invites us to be different; we may look alike, and talk alike, but to be Kadosh — holy — set apart — in order to be the light our world needs. The purpose of Jewish learning is precisely not to live like everyone else. The purpose of all these Jewish imperatives is to live JEWISHLY, which by definition means UNLIKE everyone else. The ideal would be that everyone would follow our ways, not the other way around. And one of the key differences lies in our “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — in our ultimate pursuit of justice — in all of our efforts every day of every year.
As enticing as it might be to want to be like everyone else, our call from a higher voice reaches everyone — average citizen and king alike — in order that we be extraordinary, holy and an example for others to follow.
Rabbi Andrew Paley is senior rabbi of Temple Shalom. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.