What is it with us Jews? Can't we just keep to ourselves? Why have we been at the forefront of so many of history's moral battles, in numbers disproportionate to that of any other nation of the world?

Some examples:

Morris Ostroff writes: "Considering that Jews comprised only 3.1% of the White population and 0.6% of the total population, South African Jews should take tremendous pride in the very high proportion that they opposed apartheid one way or another. It is doubtful that any other separate group, whether Chinese, Portuguese, Greek, Catholic, or even the wealthy Indian Muslim community, can boast anything approaching the proportionate number of Jews who took part in the struggle against apartheid."1

The common denominator between them all is that they were driven by a higher callingSimilarly, with regards to the American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., would wax poetic about the "the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro's struggle for freedom."

The strong moral fiber of the Jew is also apparent in the way he chooses to fight terror. The following is an excerpt from a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.N.:

"For eight long years, Hamas fired from Gaza thousands of missiles, mortars and rockets on nearby Israeli cities.... After eight years of this unremitting assault, Israel was forced to respond. But how should we have responded?

"Well, there is only one example in history of thousands of rockets being fired on a country's civilian population. It happened when the Nazis rocketed British cities during World War II. During that war, the allies leveled German cities, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties.

"Israel chose to respond differently. Faced with an enemy committing a double war crime of firing on civilians while hiding behind civilians—Israel sought to conduct surgical strikes against the rocket launchers... We dropped countless flyers over their homes, sent thousands of text messages and called thousands of cell phones asking people to leave.

"Never has a country gone to such extraordinary lengths to remove the enemy's civilian population from harm's way."

Jews were even the first to protest Guantanamo Bay:

"Jewish attorneys are considered to be the backbone of the campaign to provide legal rights for the Guantanamo detainees... Among the lawyers who were involved in this from the beginning, and even now, there is a substantive overrepresentation of Jews."2

Perhaps this isn't surprising behavior for a nation that was charged at Mount Sinai to be a "light unto the nations."

We can definitely argue about the definition of light, and yes, some have grossly mistaken darkness for light, but their mistake is in perception not in motive.

The common denominator between them all – including the large proportion of Jews involved in the Bolshevik Revolution – is that they were driven by a higher calling: by a vision for a utopian world, in which goodness, justice, and equality reigns supreme.

"You shall not cook a tender young animal in its mother's milk"3 is the solitary biblical restriction on the cooking of a particular item. There is no similar prohibition, for example, to cook pork; but when it comes to meat and milk, its not just the consumption that is forbidden, but also the act of cooking them together.

Is it unhealthy strictly on a spiritual level, for reasons known only to our Creator?What is the essence of this command; is it supra-rational or understandable? Is it unhealthy strictly on a spiritual level, for reasons known only to our Creator?

I can understand a ban on eating something which G‑d insists is spiritually unhealthy. After all, food is our life-force, and who wants to be driven by spiritually faulty fuel? Worse yet, food becomes part of our bodies, and who wants to hold onto negative energy for the rest of his life?

But what can be wrong with grilling a cheeseburger? No energy passes between you and the burger; you can – seemingly – walk away none the worse.

Moral Sensitivities

"You shall not cook a tender young animal in its mother's milk."

Why the pathos? Couldn't the verse simply say: "Do not cook meat and milk together"?

But as the wording of this prohibition suggests, this mitzvah is about moral sensitivity. It challenges us to heighten our level of compassion, and to lower our tolerance for cruelty.

It is insensitive to cook an animal in the nourishing milk that once gave it life. It is callous to boil the lifeless offspring in the symbol of its mother's nurture and love.

This is why we don't cook, eat, or benefit from this mix.

Here the cynic asks: "Sensitivity? What sensitivity? The animal is dead! Kaput! It feels nothing at all at the present moment, if it ever had feelings to begin with.

"And besides," he adds in a scholarly tone, "doesn't this prohibition include cooking an animal in milk not from its own mother?"

The question is a good one, and gives the opportunity to clarify.

A Higher Composition

This mitzvah is less about the sensitivities of the animal than it is about our own.

He invites us to show sensitivity to a concept, an idea—not even a living being!There is spiritual and physical hygiene, and then there is moral hygiene. Many mitzvot aim to keep our soul healthy, others are concerned with our body; but this one is concerned with our conscience—our ethical compass.

There are things we don't do so as not to hurt others, and then there are things we don't do so as not to hurt our true selves.

G‑d holds His precious children to a high level of justness, morality, and refinement. In this instance He asks us to respect an instrument of life by not using it as an instrument of post-death consumption. He invites us to show sensitivity to a concept, an idea—not even a living being!

He asks that we be bothered, even repulsed, by the notion of a dead animal floating in its mother's milk. Though it feels no more, we are commanded to feel for it.

He commands us to guard our ethical sense, that it never be dulled by cold and rational calculation.

We're called upon to be so careful in this respect, that we are forbidden to cook an animal in milk even if it's not from its own mother, just to ensure that we not get into the habit of cooking meat and milk together, which might bring us one day to accidentally cook a dead animal in its own mother's milk!

Talk about hypersensitivity!

Which brings us back to our opening point.

In his address to the 42nd Biennial Conference of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in Gauteng on October 19, 2002, Mr. Kgalema Motlan, secretary general of the African National Congress, said the following:

"That people of Jewish descent should be so prominent in the liberation movement says something fundamental about the compassion of Judaism. Many Jewish immigrants arrived on our shores in abject poverty, laying claim to little but their rich commitment to humanitarian and egalitarian ideals. These commitments were rooted in traditional Jewish teaching… Jewish compassion is the fruit of empathy, rather than sympathy."4

What's in It for Me?

The moment we cease to be shocked by immorality, we have become immoral At birth, each of us was gifted by G‑d with sensitivities and the potential to further develop and refine our moral constitution. Part of our mission in life is to nurture and expand that inborn gift—and certainly not to destroy it.

Let us never learn to tolerate injustice or become immune to cruelty.

The moment we cease to be shocked by immorality, we have become immoral ourselves.

In this context, "thick skin," is sick skin.

In this area, too, our beloved Torah and mitzvot must serve as the world's lighthouse. Let us continue to man that lighthouse proudly!