Posts Tagged Jewish Unity

Degrees of Separation

Our commitment to the community must be our highest priority.

New column on Pirkei Avos.

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Talking to the Wall Dept.

My efforts to engage an ideologue in civil discourse.  Draw your own conclusions.

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By Any Other Name

There’s no joy in Mao-ville.  Thousands have been rioting all over China as the economic tailspin of Western economies has left all those Chinese products with no buyers.  Protest demonstrations seem to be directed against the Communist Party which, having long been seen as a source of corruption, is now being blamed for the looming specter of widespread unemployment.  In Longnan, reported the NYT, residents said the disturbances were provoked by economic distress, rampant corruption and a lack of transparency in the local Communist Party.

The great irony, of course, is that modern China, the most aggressive capitalist economy in the world, is now suffering from the dark side of the free market, all the while laboring to preserve the illusion of its communist roots.  Naturally, such a charade cannot hold up indefinitely.

Increasingly, words and labels are not used to communicate meaning but to obscure meaning.  Political correctness has cast a fog of calculated confusion over language and expression.  The Jewish world has not escaped the effects.

It’s easy to excuse as misguided those Jews who identify themselves as adherents to Judaism, even as they simultaneously reject the Divine Word with wholesale abandon in their quest for egalitarianism, open-mindedness, and political correctness.  It’s only slightly more difficult to dismiss those dangerous and disingenuous practitioners of Torah revisionism who continue to proclaim their commitment to Orthodoxy even as they emasculate the philosophy of sincere passion and diligent observance that has preserved Jewish tradition and society for 33 centuries.  These sad but persistent creatures discredit and dishonor the movement to which they claim fealty.

But it is not these who are most responsible for prolonging and deepening our interment in exile.  It is the Jews who know better, the 100%, dyed-in-the-wool, sincere and passionately observant Torah Jews who are preventing the dawn of the messianic era.

The Torah community can genuinely boast so many examples of mesiras nefesh:  self-sacrifice for Torah study, for Torah institutions, for charity, for all kinds of community activism.  But where is the self-sacrifice for achdus — JEWISH UNITY — within the Torah observant community itself?

Where is the willingness to set aside political agendas built upon nuances in Torah philosophy that represent the 3% or 5% of differences that separate us and focus upon the 95% or 97% that we have in common?  Why must our communities stretch themselves thinner and thinner, creating new institutions that are increasingly in danger of financial collapse because we fear exposing ourselves and our children to other Torah Jews who may wear different colored yarmulkes or have different notions concerning the value of secular education or harbor different feelings about the intrinsic sanctity of the State of Israel?

How do we justify our self-destructive divisiveness when we sit on the floor on Tisha B’Av mourning the Temple that was destroyed on account of senseless hatred?  To whom are we speakingIs anybody listening as we remind ourselves that any generation that does not rebuild the Temple is considered to have destroyed it — for the very same reasons it was destroyed 2000 years ago?

Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves if the current crisis of the global economy has not been engineered solely for our benefit, to force us to confront our own failure to rise above our petty differences and find the strength and courage to work together.  When will we recognize that cooperating with other Torah Jews who may differ from us in their ideological perspectives is not the equivalent of  compromising our values?  Just the opposite:  it is refocusing on the common value that should override all others.  Gadol shalom teach the sages — Great is peace.  When will enough voices cry out to make a difference?

The Master of the World called us His chosen people.  How many more lessons will we have to endure before we are willing to choose one another?  When will we finally live up to our name?

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Parshas Vayeitzei — Bringing the Well into the City

And [Yaakov] saw that there was a well in the field.  Three flocks of sheep were there lying beside it, since it was from this well that the flocks were watered, and a great stone [blocked] the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).

This is how the Torah describes Yaakov’s arrival at the house of Lavan, his uncle, after fleeing from his wicked brother, Eisav, and beginning his search for a wife.  Curiously, when Eliezer, servant of Yaakov’s grandfather Avrohom, arrived at the same place a generation earlier, the Torah describes the location of the well not “in the field” but “at the edge of the city” (Bereishis 24:11).

This seeming inconsistancy provides the basis for an enigmatic debate recorded in the Talmud (Bechoros 8b):

The Elders of Athens said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, “We have a well out in the fields; bring it into the city.”

Rabbi Yehoshua took chaff and threw it before them, saying, “Make me a rope out of chaff and I will bring it in.”

They asked, “Who can make a rope out of chaff?”

He replied, “Then who can bring a well from the field into the city?”

Last week, we explained that the Torah employs the imagery of a well  — the source of water, which is the basis of physical life — as a symbol for Torah itself, which is the source of spiritual life.

The Malbim explains that when peace and a sense of unity exist among the Jewish people, when they live in the Land of Israel with the Divine Word guiding their actions and their attitudes, then the “well” of Torah is “in the city,” providing the people with security and their settlements with prosperity.

However, when our spiritual negligence and complacency cause us to be exiled from our land and subjected to the uncertainty and unpredictability of life among the nations of the earth, when we have to struggle against all manner of obstacles to keep G-d’s word and His commandments central in our lives, then the well of Torah is “in the field.”

This was the assertion of the Elders of Athens, the scholars of the Roman Empire who based their wisdom on the teachings of the ancient Greeks:  If you Jews are divided against one another, if you yourselves recognize sinas chinom, the senseless hatred among you, as the cause of your exile, then how can you ever expect to earn your redemption?  How can you believe that the well “in the field” will ever become transformed into a well “in the city?”

Rabbi Yehoshua’ s answer finds its meaning in the continuation of the Torah narrative:

And all the flocks would gather there, and they would roll away the stone from the mouth of the well and allow the flocks to drink, and then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).

To bring the well from the “field” into the “city” requires a spiritual “rope” to bind the future with the past.  The Malbim explains that the three flocks represent the three eras of Jewish exile, each imposing upon the people the challenges and crises.  Only by working together to overcome these challenges will the people achieve a level of unity to become worthy of redemption and acquiring the merit to build HaShem’s Temple so that the Divine Presence can dwell in their midst. 

In the course of the first two exiles, the collective merit of a unified Jewish nation ultimately “rolled away the stone” of temptation and transgression, allowing the waters of spirituality to flow free and revive a spiritually thirsty people.  And each time, prosperity encouraged the people to stray after the inclinations of the hearts, so that the stone of self-indulgence and self-interest rolled back to its place and drove the people back into the parched desert of exile.

The first era was galus Mitzrayim, the exile in Egypt, which forged the people into a nation and culminated in their entry into the land and their ultimate construction of the first Beis HaMikdash.  Tragically, without the external pressure provided by enemies around them, their commitment to one another dissolved and, over time, led to the erosion of their collective merit and their exile to Babylon.

Thus began the second era, in which the Jews gradually earned back the privilege of living in their land, rebuilding the Temple, and regaining political autonomy in the aftermath of the miracle of Chanukah.  But infighting among the descendants of the Hasmoneans eventually led to the disintegration of political stability, the conquest by the Roman Empire, and the destruction of the second Temple.

Out of the ruins of the Roman Empire grew Western Civilization, the final exile of Jewish history, in which the twin attractions of material prosperity and cultural assimilation have exceeded all the obstacles to spirituality that have confronted the Jews throughout all previous ages.  And once again, the divisiveness that traces its roots back to the senseless hatred of 2000 years ago stands in the way of bringing the well of Torah and spiritual redemption from the “field” into the “city.”

Scattered like chaff, the Jewish people will remain in exile until, by bonding together in unity, they form the “rope” that connects them back to their origins as a cohesive people.  When that happens, Rabbi Yehoshua told the Elders, when the “chaff” of disunity becomes a “rope” of redemption, then the Jewish people will find their way home.

But how is that possible?  the Elders asked.  Just as chaff cannot make a rope, disaffected and disparate individuals cannot form a people.

That may be true, answered Rabbi Yehoshua.  But the image of chaff only describes the Jewish people in the most simplistic and superficial way.  We may appear cut off from one another, but we share the collective soul of the Almighty’s chosen people.  The more we become distant from one another, the more we yearn to return to our common roots.  As the exile grows darker and deeper, we come closer to the time when the very depths of our spiritual darkness will compel us to pull together, thereby pulling ourselves forward into the light of the messianic era.

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If they can do it …

Live Science reports new findings that amoebas, the most fundamental form of micro-organisms, respond to environmental crises in a revolutionary way:  cooperation and self-sacrifice:

Called Dictyostelium discoideum, this amoeba species generally keeps to itself when living in a healthy environment with [adequate sustanence].

But when food supplies run low, the free-living organisms clump together into a community of individuals. The result is a multi-cellular organism. Each amoeba takes on one of two roles in this organism: They either become spores, which can survive and reproduce, or they die and the dead cells form stalks that lift the spores above the ground to increase the chances the spores will disperse to more favorable environments.

It doesn’t reflect well upon human beings that we can’t take this simple lesson a step further than the most simple single-celled bacteria, or that sometimes we can’t even get as far as they do.  With the economy plummetting, we hear to little “ask not what my country can do for me” and way too much “where’s mine?”

Jewish history provides endless examples.  The world was destroyed in the Great Flood because a culture of greed and violence had spread over th face of the earth, and the Second Temple was destroyed because of the twin transgressions of senseless hatred and refusing to go beyond the letter of the law.

When research reveals that germs have more cooperative spirit and a greater predisposition toward self-sacrifice than we do, the echoes of history should warn us that even more troubles may be waiting around the corner.

Unless, or course, we take a sharp turn around a different corner.

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