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Home > Secteur-English > General > The Judaism and Goodwill. Laurence Mordekhai Thomas

The Judaism and Goodwill. Laurence Mordekhai Thomas

Once upon a time, a father uttered the following remarks to me : “I would love for my son to grow up be rather like you”. Needless to say, I thought that was a very nice compliment. And then the father added : “You see, I am not racist”. As one can imagine, the father’s additional remark more or less diminished entirely the very wonderful compliment which he had made to me at the very outset. 
At that point, I recalled the following passage :
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty ; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city (Proverb 16:32)
One lesson that life has taught me is that more often than not one can do far more with a very thoughtful question than with a host of critical commentary. And so I responded to the father as follows : “If I should become incredibly poor tomorrow but remain faithful to Judaism, would you still consider me to be a role model for your son ?” 
Hashem has blessed me to live a life that most people, whatever their color might be, will never live. And for that my gratitude—nay, my humility—is without end. I wanted the son’s father to understand the importance of distinguishing between admiring a Jew for her or his success and admiring a Jew for her or his faithfulness to Judaism. It is my view that we who are Jewish owe it to every Jew to admire the person for her or his faithfulness to Judaism. 
To be sure, success is invariably a matter of hard work. Alas, it is also a matter of considerable good fortune. Faithfulness, however, is never a matter of good fortune. Instead, faithfulness to Judaism is necessarily a matter of choice—a choice that each individual makes on numerous occasions each and every single day of her or his life. 
Here is a simple example. For every airplane trip that I make between France and the United States, there are packages of salmon in my carry-on luggage so that I may have something that is kosher to eat. It is not luck that I have the salmon. Quite the contrary, my having the salmon flows from my determination to live a certain life-style.
Would the father admire me as much for keeping a kosher life-style as he would for flying back-and-forth to France ? 
Among the various Jews whom I admire, there are many whose commitment to Judaism nourishes my very soul although flying back-and-forth over the Atlantic Ocean or any other ocean, for that matter, is not an option in their lives. This, surely, is as Hashem would have it. 
Wealth is one thing. Spiritual excellence is quite another. And it is the latter to which the Torah exalts us. We are not exalted to be rich. However, we are exalted in the Book of Leviticus to be holy : “You shall be holy ; for I am holy”. 
Let me now return to the father’s claim : “You see, I am not racist”. Well, the truth of the matter is that I am not impressed that a person should admire someone who travels back-and-forth between two continents ; for being able to do that says nothing at all about the traveler’s character. Alas, although the father had known me for more than 12 years when he made that remark, the father never said a word about my character or my commitment to Judaism. 
The Torah extols us not just to be observant but to be discerning as well. And the gift that we who are Jews bring to one another lies in precisely the fact that we look beyond the ostensible to the depth of a person’s character. 
I am not going to answer the question of whether I think that the father is right in holding “You see, I am not racist”. For all that I know, he may very well not be racist. All the same, his remarks on that day were not by any means the best evidence that he could have proffered that he is not racist. 
Let me conclude with the following personal observation. I am not at all impressed with the fact that a person may or may not travel back-and-forth between two continents. What would matter to me is what the person does with her or his life given that the individual has been blessed to travel so abundantly. 
And now, by the way, you know something about me. Many people to whom I have told this story have insisted that the father is racist. But Judaism counsels us to be slow in making negative judgments about a person’s character. Indeed, our sages are clear that where can reasonably give a person the benefit of the doubt we should. I am black, whereas the father and his son are white. Alas, that configuration of skin color does not change one iota the way in which Judaism requires us to treat one another. 
I shall always treasure the family in Finland that invited me to their house for Shabbat lunch. I arrived at the synagogue and walked in. I then took a prayer book and began participating in the service. All sorts of people stared. But, in the spirit of the wisdom of our sages, this one family made what is surely the most reasonable conclusion : He is a Jew. And that is how they treated me. The family members never asked me how I got to be a Jew. And guess what : I never asked them how they got to be Jews. That was rightly irrelevant. 
“You shall be holy ; for I am holy”. The embodiment of holiness is not superiority, but goodwill. And we have none other than the way of Hashem as proof of this. If you believe as I do that there is significance to the smallest detail that Hashem authorizes, then it might very well be that it is no accident at all Joseph had a coat of many colors !

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