Privilege. Its inherent meaning has gotten a bit lost recently, covered and camouflaged by the negative connotation affixed to it by younger generations. Economic privilege – social privilege – racial privilege. For some, they’re thoughtful considerations of how one’s demographics factor into our lives’ good fortunes; for others, they’re automatic indictments of an unjust, unequal world. I’ll leave that conversation – one that can benefit from Jewish history and values – to another time.
For now, the very idea of privilege hit me on the last of fall’s long line of holidays, on Simchat Torah. Dancing with scores of Jews celebrating the annual ending-and-beginning of our reading of the Torah – literally dancing with the Torah scrolls carefully embraced by fellow Congregants – I couldn’t help but think that this was an extraordinary privilege. Our history is replete with moments when this simple act of loving devotion wasn’t just denied us – it was dangerous. Millennia ago, reading or teaching the words of Torah was a death sentence in ancient Judea; a little over five centuries ago in Southern Europe, the same. A generation and a half ago, sifrei Torah were once again burned and defiled, and our persecutors didn’t distinguish between those who followed the Torah’s commandments and those who did not; those who read or taught The Law and those who did not.
Privilege – not only to dance and sing and rejoice, but to read and study and share the words with our children and our children’s children. But privilege in 2022 doesn’t end there. We’ve also been given the gift of living during the renaissance of Israel’s Third Commonwealth – a privilege unimagined by our grandparents’ generation. Leaving aside the technological revolutions, consider how any of our Twentieth Century ancestors would react if they could walk along a crowded Tel Aviv street, hearing Hebrew, seeing Israeli – Jewish – soldiers, catching a glimpse of an Israeli flag.
A helpful exercise to remind ourselves of our privileges is to conjure up those who do not share what we have in our lives. Historically or geographically or chronologically – there are many reasons why some do not enjoy what we ourselves might take for granted. We should all embrace the concept of hakarat hatov – the recognition of the good (in other words, gratitude). Easier said than done – we become accustomed to what we have – and certainly if it’s been part of our lives since we were young. The roof over our heads, the food on our table and in our pantries, the absence of daily danger, the distance from illness. If we are truly fortunate to live lives free of even the most basic of wants, and while we should strive for a conscious sense of appreciation, that level of spiritual gratefulness is elusive.
We should seek out that same level of gratitude in our Jewish lives. The ability to attend a Jewish summer camp, to soak up the wisdom of our Sages virtually or in person, to “break our teeth” while we learn Hebrew (the idiom sounds a lot better in Hebrew) – those are privileges that should be celebrated with fireworks every night.
Privilege does come with a price – responsibility. Those who learn something are obligated to pass on that knowledge, directly or indirectly. Those whose lives are enriched, our Tradition teaches us, need to share that good fortune with others who are not as blessed. Perhaps it begins with acknowledging that we are, indeed, privileged.
שבת שלום – Shabbat shalom,