A dangerous misconception exists; the Jewish people are oriented to the past. Our collective age, deep connection to ancient traditions, our lived memory of events centuries before our time, the image of Tevye singing, “Tradition!” and more sometimes belie the truth: We are not a people of the past. We are a people of the future.
In our tradition, we count up. Whether it be Chanukah candles, the Omer, or even the days of Shiva, the move is always to count towards what is coming next. The anticipation of the messianic era, a bedrock of our faith, firmly roots our spiritual yearnings toward a day that is still coming.
The High Holidays orient us to the future. Of course, we take time to remember and reflect on the past, but that memory and reflection aims us towards action today and even more importantly, tomorrow. We believe in the future, and we believe that the collective Jewish future is shaped largely by small human choices.
On Rosh Hashanah, our Torah and Haftorah readings are not about God creating the world. We don’t focus on the grand stories of Kings and empires. We read small stories: parents, children, legacies, and journeys.
From these small stories, filled with tragedy and triumph, pathos and hope, amazing things happen: kings are born, nations formed, the world is changed. The fruits of these stories are sometimes born immediately, sometimes generations later.
Birthright Israel understands these deep Jewish truths.
Birthright Israel, in concept and practice, is profoundly future-oriented. And through hundreds of thousands of small stories and small journeys, Birthright Israel changes the future.
Birthright Israel changed mine. I grew up in an Orthodox home but left the Jewish community in high school. At the wise old age of 13 I thought I knew all I needed to know about Judaism. Then, in 2005 on a whim, I signed up for a trip. Free vacation!
What I saw, learned and felt on that trip inspired and challenged me in ways I could have never imagined. I stayed on – learning, exploring, connecting, and I can definitively say that the Birthright Israel experience changed the trajectory of my life. If you had told pre-Birthright Israel 22-year-old me that 15 years later I would be serving as an Orthodox rabbi in Skokie, Illinois I would have laughed in your face!
My story is just one of hundreds of thousands of young Jews who took a journey that changed their world.
This year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur challenge us to take the small steps and journeys that will shape our futures and the future of the Jewish people. In the midst of a world upending pandemic, it is even more critical that we internalize this ancient Jewish wisdom. Judaism challenges us to live for the future. I am deeply grateful for Birthright Israel and for the gift of the Jewish future it gave to me. May it continue its sacred and critical work for millions of others for many, many years to come.