There are countless reasons why it is important for us to understand and appreciate the great wisdom and beauty of Jewish history and tradition. For one, Jesus was Jewish as were all his first disciples; all were steeped in the Old Testament texts and the ancient customs therein, so it’s darn near impossible to understand all that Jesus wishes to share with us without some rudimentary knowledge of the history of the Israelites. To that end, I’d like to highlight one aspect of the Jewish perspective that might be of particular help to us at this moment in history.
In what we call the “Old Testament” (more appropriately “The Hebrew Scriptures”- since there is no “Old” and “New” for our Jewish brothers and sisters…simply THE testament) we read how the ancient Israelites tenaciously pursued the truth that undergirds every aspect of our lives; they searched and sought to see and understand what it is that we are meant to know and learn through each particular time or event within our history. But they approached this work not just with the physical eye but through a unique lens; the lens of their covenant with God. And so they listened with a different ear, one that was formed primarily by their strong belief that they always had God with them as a companion. They never saw themselves as alone. God is always in the picture; always the source of what is being revealed.
Author John Shea tells a story that highlights this point of view. He was attending a big national conference and when they broke into small groups, each person was called upon to introduce themselves. So he started out and said “Hi. My name is Jack Shea, I was born in 1946, I am a professor at Loyola University,” and so on and so forth. The next person up was a Native American and he began by saying “My people are from this region, our traditions are such and such, etc.” Only at the end did he make mention of his own place within his tribe. Who this man was began with his connectedness, his community. His primary identity was as a member of “a people” before having an individual identity.
This is very true about the Jewish people as well, who, right up to this day profess their covenant with God who proclaims many times in the Hebrew scriptures “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” The story of the ancient Israelites (including Jesus) is of a people who were profoundly conscious of their fellowship with God; beginning in the very first book of the bible that recounts how Abram (later Abraham) heard God say to him “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you” and at the spry age of 75, Abram listened, packed up his family and all he owned and moved out of the only land he had ever known.
What Jesus knew and what set the ancient Israelites apart was that they knew in the deepest part of their being that God, our creator, wished to communicate with them, acted in their lives and would never leave them alone. Our Jewish friends work very hard to keep the stories alive about how God has been present in the lives of their ancestors and continues to care for His people today. According to Jesus, who prayed “That we ALL may be one,” our ability as a human family to listen together for God and recognize our inalienable oneness as “a people,” are integral parts of God’s dream for our world.