Leonard Nimoy as Spock in an episode of "Star Trek."
Leonard Nimoy as Spock in an episode of "Star Trek."

To boldly go where courageous Jews have gone before

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Genesis 25:19-28:9

I recently watched an interview where Leonard Nimoy, the legendary actor who played Mr. Spock on “Star Trek,” explained how he invented the iconic hand gesture that became the Vulcan salute.

He was rehearsing a scene where Spock meets a fellow Vulcan for the first time. Rather than have the aliens shake hands, a very human gesture, Nimoy felt the pair needed to do something different. His thoughts went back to a powerful moment he had experienced with his father in shul.

During the High Holiday services, the Kohanim, the priests, bless those in attendance. As they do, they extend the palms of both hands over the congregation, with thumbs outstretched and the middle and ring fingers parted so that each hand forms two V shapes. This gesture symbolizes the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter in the word Shaddai, “Lord.”

Nimoy had seen this gesture, and been moved by it. Decades later, when he searched his imagination for an appropriate gesture to represent the peace-loving Vulcans, the Kohanim’s symbol of blessing came to mind. A raised hand, fingers parted while saying, “Live long and prosper,” it was very similar to the actual blessing, “May the Lord bless you and make you prosper.”

Today, science fiction fans all over the globe still walk around blessing each other with a birkat kohanim. Indeed, today the gesture is even a popular emoji and a universal sign for “live long and prosper.” What began as a distinctly Jewish blessing has morphed into a reminder to all people to aspire to peace among our fellow people.

In our modern, materialistic times, humanity is yearning for meaning, for transcendence, for a higher purpose. Even Hollywood is ready to incorporate birkat kohanim. By sharing the richness of Jewish thought and practice, we can provide a path to a more elevated way of living for all who seek it.

In previous centuries, Jews had to fight to be full citizens with equal rights. Today, in the 21st century, Jews have to fight for the right to be different — to maintain our beautiful Jewish distinctness. If we are ashamed and hide our own identity, how can we ever be a light unto the nations? If we are not bold, we won’t burn brightly.

Do you know the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat?

A thermometer reflects the temperature. A thermostat sets the temperature. To be a Jew is to be a thermostat, not thermometer — not to conform to the temperature of your environment; instead, to set the temperature, to be a positive influence. And the world will be enriched.

As God promised Isaac in this week’s Torah section, “All the nations of the Earth will get blessings for themselves through your descendants.”

When the Jewish American gymnast, model and three-time Olympic gold medal winner Aly Raisman decided that the music for her floor routine at the London Olympics was going to be “Hava Nagila,” many people, including members of her coaching staff, tried to dissuade her. “It’s too ethnic,” they said, “too Jewish.” Despite all the pressure, Raisman refused to change it.

When a reporter asked her why she had chosen that song, she wasn’t the least bit timid, embarrassed or apologetic about it, but said very simply, “I’m Jewish, that’s why I wanted that floor music!” She then went on to explain that it was her way of publicly honoring the memory of the 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and officials murdered during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games by PLO terrorists — something the International Olympic Committee apparently forgot to do on the 40th anniversary of the killings.

This 18-year-old girl from Massachusetts had the boldness to call out the Olympic organizers on their insensitivity, expressing her solidarity with families and friends of the victims from Israel whom she did not know.

On that day, Aly Reisman stood up for her people, for her convictions — and for human decency. She stood proudly in her Jewish identity. On that day, Aly Reisman won a gold medal — in more ways than one.

To be a Jew is to have the courage to live in the larger society, to contribute to it, to move with its rhythms, and yet still to do certain things in tune with our unique Jewish melody. Like Aly, like Leonard, when we are bold, we are a creative force for good in the world, moving it ever so slightly forward in the direction of justice and compassion and love.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.