Jewish man in kippa (illustrative)
Jewish man in kippa (illustrative)Anna Kaplan/ Flash90

It’s easy for Jews to identify their enemies, but not necessarily their friends, and this is because of shifting ideological, political, and faith-based allegiances. Most secular Jews blame the rising tide of antisemitism on white supremacists or right-wing extremists but can’t accept the fact that many of their progressive compatriots hate Jews just as much, if not more so, despite outwardly decrying the evils of racism and haranguing others about equity and inclusion. In their minds, it just can’t be.

By the same token, those who pronounce evangelical support for Jews and Israel irreproachable are often blind to conversionary agendas intended to seduce Jews to avodah zarah (strange worship).

Clearly, some want to crush the Jewish body while others seek to destroy the Jewish soul.

For some, the proliferation of physical and spiritual threats feeds a sense of bleak alienation and existential angst. For others, it fortifies the resolve to accentuate the strength of Jewish faith, heritage, and national identity, and to forge the clarity of vision necessary to combat our detractors and establish true friendships.

I experienced such a moment of clarity during the last days of Pesach.

The route to our shul is a few miles long, but the synagogue has a good vibe, a warm rabbi and rebbetzin, and a welcoming congregation. As I was walking on the seventh day of the festival, however, I slipped on gravel from a nearby construction site and fell hard. One foot got caught in a divot in the road and remained stationary while the rest of my body rolled the other way. When I came to rest on the left side of the road, I realized I was injured and couldn’t stand up without assistance. I was about a mile from the shul but couldn’t even walk a few feet. As it was the holiday, I had no phone with which to dial 911.

A non-Jewish gentleman going in the other direction, though, happened to see me fall and rushed over to help. He said, “dude, are you alright?” And I replied, “no, I don’t think I am.” He saw me try to stand only to topple over and said he wouldn’t leave me sitting there in the road. He asked where I was going, and I told him; and knowing where the synagogue is located, he also knew there was no way I could make it there on my own. So, without my even having to ask, he helped get me to shul (in a halakhically acceptable manner).

On the way there, he told me his name was Ed and he asked why I was walking such a distance wearing a jacket and tie on a warm day. So, I told him that Jews who walk to synagogue on Shabbat and the holidays do so regardless of the weather. His response was, “that’s so cool, I really admire that.” He then talked about the importance of belief and loyalty to faith in a way that suggested he was Pentecostal (though he didn’t exhibit any evangelical fervor) and he said he admired Jews for their unique relationship with G-d. What he didn’t do was trivialize Jewish observance or seize the moment to proselytize, which in my experience often happens with evangelical Christians.

When we got to the shul, he helped me to the door and asked whether I wanted him to wait with me until the rabbi arrived. I thanked him and said it wasn’t necessary. The rabbi entered a few minutes later, saw the shape I was in, and said I should go to the hospital. He was right and I suppose I should have gone immediately. But I’m the leyner (Torah reader) and also stubborn, so I stayed longer than I probably should have, davened, and read the Torah portion for the seventh day of Pesach, after which I was taken to an emergency care facility.

Despite the injury (which sidelined me from shul for the next few weeks and didn’t fully heal until Shavuot), my interaction with Ed was eye-opening for two reasons. First, he was in the right place at the right time on a day when, as he told me, he normally would not have been going down that road. Some might call his presence coincidental, though others might call it Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence). Second, his reaction when I explained about walking to shul – without any effort to patronize or evangelize – suggested a purity of spirit not often seen in today’s divisive society.

This gentleman stopped to help simply because it was the right thing to do, and from his comments, I believe he learned something about Jews that he could relate to and emulate, which got me thinking about what Tanakh expects from us in our relations with Gentiles. The Hebrew scriptures clearly articulate the Jews’ mission on earth – and they also provide a template for distinguishing true friends from those who would use the mantle of friendship to try to corrupt the Jewish spirit.

As stated in Tanakh, the Jews constitute a Mamlechet Kohanim v’Goy Kadosh (“a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”), who exemplify through loyalty to G-d and Torah the spiritual and moral standards for daily living. This paradigm is articulated in Torah, which states that when Jews conduct themselves appropriately, “then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of the Lord is called upon you…” (Devarim, 28:10.) Only by embracing Torah can Jews fulfill their mission as an Ohr L’Goyyim (“light to the nations”), which is indicated by G-d’s words as conveyed through the Prophet Yeshayahu: “I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth.” (Yeshayahu, 49:6.)

My fortuitous interaction with Ed gave color to these words, particularly in light of his kindness and admiration for Jewish loyalty to faith and tradition. He seemed truly impressed by the standards of those who embrace their own traditions and who understand that their universal mission cannot be divorced from their parochial duties and obligations.

This is something secular Jews today have largely forgotten, and their lack of awareness facilitates the acceptance of negative stereotypes imposed from without and self-hatred that springs from within. Or it feeds a vestigial ghetto mentality that (a) discourages many from asserting themselves for fear of appearing impudent and (b) triggers an obsequious urge to please their detractors.

These traits are apparent in those who consider public displays of Jewishness (e.g,. wearing kippot or tzitzit) crass or provocative, or who deem it impolitic to respond to proselytizing missionaries by quoting real Hebrew Scripture or to rebuff anti-Israel zealots with real Jewish history. There’s a certain similarity in thought between those who believe antisemitism is engendered by Jewish behavior and those who assert symbiotic doctrinal affinity where none exists.

At the end of the day, there is no harmony between Jewish and Christian beliefs that are fundamentally incompatible or moral equivalence between the Jews’ historical connection to their homeland and revisionist claims to the contrary. Those who believe otherwise on either point are either ignorant of their own scripture and history or knowingly contemptuous of both. Or they don’t know what constitutes authentic Jewish values.

Interactions with individuals like my friend Ed, however, might help accentuate the beauty of Jewish tradition and immutable truth of Tanakh, which teaches, among other things, that Mashiach will someday come to redeem Israel from exile, reestablish the Davidic dynasty, teach the world about Hashem’s majesty, and preside over an era of peace and tranquility meaningful for Jews and Gentiles alike. According to Tanakh, the Mashiach cannot forgive sin; only G-d has that power. Rather, he will come after repentance and personify what it means to be “a light to the nations.”

Only by remaining true to their faith, scripture, and history can Jews fulfill this role, as foretold by Zechariah some 2,600 years ago. Upon returning from Babylon, the Prophet wrote that in the future days of redemption, “ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold…of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you.’” (Zechariah, 8:23.) That is, they will cling to those who remained loyal to Torah and rejected strange worship.

This prophesy would ring hollow if Jews were to succumb to missionary blather or forsake the Tanakh. For me, the veracity of the Prophet’s words was reinforced by my encounter with a Gentile who expressed his admiration for our laws, traditions, and beliefs without any apparent ulterior agenda – and who acted like a mensch when called upon by circumstance.