For me, the last Shabbat of 2019 began with a bang. In those early morning hours, prior to setting out for the weekly Torah class preceding services, my eyes did a double-take as I scanned the op-ed articles in that day’s New York Times. I was immediately taken by The Secrets of Jewish Genius. Written by Bret Stephens, a Jewish Journalists, the article shows a lopsided representation of Ashkenazic Jews as far as Nobel Prize Winners in Science (27percent) and recipients of ACM Turing awards (25 percent). The latter is an annual prize given by the Association for Computing Machinery to an individual selected for contributions “of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field”. Mr. Stephens could have justifiably pointed out similar lopsided Jewish representation in the fields of Accounting, Law, and Medicine.
Although my reading tastes rarely include novels, I immediately thought back to Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, where the fictional Chasidic Reb Saunders delivers a soliloquy against the Jewish mind. Having had a brother in pre-war Europe who was arguably one of the most brilliant minds ever to come into this world (this mattered not one iota to the Nazis who herded that brother along with six million other Jews of varying IQs into the gas chamber), Reb Saunders cries that better minds will in no way guarantee a better world. There was no shortage of brilliant, albeit diabolical minds among Nazi leadership. What the world needs, lamented Reb Saunders is not Jewish minds, but Jewish souls! I take no issue whatsoever with Bret Stephen’s op-ed. I cry from within, however, wondering when Bret Stephens or any other journalist – Jewish or non-Jewish – will ever write, or perhaps better stated, will ever have any reason to write an article about the Jewish soul.
Our Rabbinic sages fumbled when it came to what could have been one of the most meaningful prayers of the day, leaving the editor of the siddur to drop the ball altogether. “My G-d! The soul you placed within me is pure. You created it. You fashioned it. You breathed it into me…”
Known to us as Elohei Neshamah, it is beyond me, why there is no mention anywhere in this prayer, about appreciation on our parts for this divinely entrusted soul, tailor-made for each and every human being brought into this world. It escapes me why we are not challenged to take that soul and put it to the best use possible. For the life of me, I fail to understand why the prayer Elohei Neshamah segues into the litany of morning blessings at the beginning of daily Shacharit services, for bleary-eyed worshippers to mumble through. If focus on HaShem and His goodness along with His tender mercies is integral to our daily existence, shouldn’t focus on our G-d given soul, so that it too be a source of goodness and tender mercies, be given top billing as well?
In my book “The Right Word”, I pointed out the difference between an obituary and a eulogy. I stressed that the former tells us that a person has died; the latter tells us that a person has lived. I should like to point out yet another difference between the two. An obituary informs us about the individual’s accomplishments and acuity. Whether telling us that the deceased was CEO of a major company or president of the P.T.A., an obituary emphasizes the mind of an individual. A eulogy, on the other hand, is about the individual’s influence and impact. Whether telling us how the deceased was a veritable Will Rogers who never met a person he/she didn’t like or how the deceased volunteered at the Police Station every Christmas day to express appreciation for Officers of the Law, a eulogy emphasizes the soul of an individual. So too inscriptions found on grave monuments. The next time you are at a cemetery, take a few moments to read the epitaphs on these monuments. Do those inscriptions focus in on the mind or the soul of the individual?
As we welcome 2020, in addition to looking at accomplishments of the past year, let us also look forward to a year of care and concern for others. As important as it is to live smarter, it is crucial that we live better. If we can make that happen, then perhaps there will come a time when Bret Stephens or another journalist will write an op-ed about The Secrets of a Jewish Soul.