I am about to ask you the scariest question in Judaism.
It's brazenness may shock you. It may come across as being irreverent - maybe even sacrilegious.
It is the question that scares the socks off Jewish educators, because most don't have a compelling answer to the question. It is also the most important unasked question in the atherosclerotic Jewish Establishment.
The question itself is quite simple: Why...Be...Jewish?
From the outside looking in, living a Jewish life is demanding: keeping kosher (covered in our parashah, BTW); keeping Shabbat; getting up at the crack of dawn every day for prayers; daily Torah study; giving significant sums to charity; and committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private Jewish education for the kiddies, when the public school around the corner is free. (And that's just for warm-ups.)
Not only that: we look around and see lots of people who were born into Jewish families who have blown all that stuff off, with no apparent ill effects. They lead pleasant enough lives; so why shouldn't I eat what I want, do what I want, whenever I want? 'Don't hassle me with your rules, I just want to be happy. Give me one good reason to stick with it.'
And goodness knows there are lots of exits, no waiting.
This is where many parents and educators get stuck. How would you answer the question?
Let me come to your rescue: the Torah in this week's parashah provides a pretty good answer.
In it we read of the eighth day of the investiture ceremonies of Aaron and his sons as the priestly clan (in Hebrew, priest = Cohen) for all of the People of Israel. For seven days, they had been purified in body and spirit. They had intensively trained in the various forms of offerings - the sin, elevation, peace and guilt offerings - and in the many specific details regulating how each of them is to be dealt with.
Now, at the end of the training week, they are given their unique charge: they and they alone are empowered to present the offerings on Gcd's Altar. The celebrant can bring the offering as far as Gcd's doorstep, as it were, but the Cohen must take and offer it in the inner sanctum. It is through the ministrations of Aaron and his sons - Aaron being the archetypal peacemaker - that peace is restored between Gcd and his frequently wayward people.
As we read through the book of Leviticus, the Cohanim had many special duties, and as a consequence, they had many extra rules that applied only to them and not to a garden-variety Jew. But the relationship between the Jew and the Cohen was an interdependent one; without the Cohanim, the Jews could not make Temple offerings, and without communal and private offerings the Cohanim were out of business.
Brilliant. But how does all this address our question?
When we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the entire Jewish People were called upon by Gcd to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Hallowed Nation.
A Kingdom of Priests.
We learn how priests are to behave (and not behave) by the lessons of Aaron and his sons as presented in this parashah. But what does this parallel language actually mean in the real world?
In the same way that the Cohanim ministered to Gcd on behalf of the Jewish People, the mission of the Jewish People is to minister on behalf of all the other Peoples of the world. In the same way that the Cohanim were the teachers of the Jewish People, so, too, are the Jews the light-bringers to the Nations. And in the same way that the Cohanim had specific mitzvot that were not incumbent upon other Jews, so, too, do the Jews have mitzvot that are not incumbent upon the other Peoples.
Were the Cohanim “better” than other Jews by virtue of their of their service? No. They simply have a different role to play; a different voice in the complex fugue that is the Jewish Mission. Are Jews intrinsically “better" human beings than other people? We are not. But we have a different role to play; a role that requires the careful and enthusiastic observance of the Torah's 613 mitzvot.
The Jewish Mission is to agitate for a world where all people come to recognize that all good emanates from Gcd/Hashem, Creator of heaven and earth, the Eternal One, Gcd of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One who wants for us only good. It is to sensitize people to the idea that the natural state of the human soul, the spark of the Divine, is to connect with its Source and be at peace with it.
The Jewish Mission is to unite mankind in the recognition that the One True Compassionate Gcd created us all, Who loves us all, has assigned each to one of us a specific task in the great and holy work - our common goal - of perfecting the world together. It is a clarion call to genuine goodness and compassion; it is the shofar's penetrating call to the heart that melts the layers of cynicism and pain. It is a call to truth and to service and to love; a call to reflection and to self-improvement and to humility.
The Jewish Mission proclaims the inclusive, universal message that Gcd loves us all and welcomes all good people in heaven irrespective of race, creed, or color. (This is in strong contrast to faith systems that threaten eternal damnation for non-believers.)
The very survival of this sliver of a people, the Jews, the nation that bears His name within its own, is tangible proof that Gcd exists.
And Gcd apportioned the land of Israel to the people of Israel. The return of the Jews to this mere sliver of a land, our ancestral homeland Israel, in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, proves that He keeps His word, and that His Torah is true. The Torah is our deed.
We must answer "Why Be Jewish" by speaking of mission, of a life of purpose, a life of destiny; if we can ignite the fire of youthful passion in the dissemination of all that is holy and good, of priesthood and of leadership, then it is virtually assured that our children and our children’s children will remain faithful to Judaism for all time.
How do we light that fire in them? By rekindling it in ourselves first.
We must shatter our own apathy and complacency; we must perform our mitzvot with passion and dedication, and strive to perceive the mission behind the mitzvah. We must read the words of the Siddur, the daily prayerbook, as if reading them for the very first time, every time, pregnant with impact and layered in meaning.
Lastly, we must take a stand in the culture wars, and be the voice of Truth in a world of lies and falsehood. Wake up brothers and sisters! Why do we yet sleep? The world burns around us and we dither.
To rise to our calling as the Kingdom of Priests is to live for a far higher purpose than the craven pursuit of a comfortable life; of self-gratification and the next buzz. To be Jewish is nothing less than to have hand in, and to make a signal contribution to, the salvation of the world.
And that is an answer worthy of the question.