As I look toward the end of January and the nation’s commemoration of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am recalling an essay that I have been chewing upon ever since I read it a few months ago. It’s author is Former Prime Minister of Israel Shimon Peres and it is part of The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education. [The essay may found here: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-dissatisfied-nation/.]
What I found particularly engaging was Peres’ assertion that at the core of Jewish identity lies a profound and defining dissatisfaction. Peres is not talking about the Jewish propensity for kvetching, which we have raised to the level of a fine art, but, rather, that impulse which has impelled Jews throughout the centuries to engage in Tikkun Olam, the repair of a world that is constantly in need of repair.
Peres writes, “As I wonder what Judaism’s most significant contribution to the world has been, I am convinced that the global and ethical justification for Jewish continuity goes far beyond our fight for survival. In my eyes, the answer lies in the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam – bettering the world. Jewish culture and philosophy are known for their endless quests, never satisfied with what has been learned and achieved. This quality has made Judaism one of the greatest contributors to the betterment of the world throughout the ages.”
I resonate deeply to that perspective. The causes to which I have committed myself throughout my life, some of them precious inheritances from my parents, are inextricably bound up with my identity as a Jew. I may grapple with belief in God, with the efficacy of prayer, with the proper balance between time-honored ritual and innovation, but it is always my sense of being a Jew that fuels my convictions with respect to social justice.
I know lots of dissatisfied Jews….Jews who are unhappy with a particular congregation or its leadership, Jews who are vexed by Israeli politics, Jews who chafe at their minority status in society. These varieties of unhappiness are not what Peres is describing. He is articulating an existential response to the state of the world that categorically rejects the status quo as adequate. Judaism mandates a response of dissatisfaction, a response that says, in essence, “we won’t be satisfied until the world has been perfected.” It’s unlikely to happen in my lifetime, but I am not absolved of the responsibility to do my part.
Way back in 1965 the Rolling Stones had a massive hit with “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)”. With all due respect to those aging legends of rock n’ roll, to be a Jew means to passionately embrace the reality that we will never get satisfaction because that is such a fundamental part of what it means to be a Jew….transforming dissatisfaction into action.