Imagining the Unimaginable
For most of us the mourning of Tisha B’Av is only partly for our lost Temple. We mourn no less over our lack of access to the emotions aroused by the Temple, for our inability to even imagine what it is that we are so lacking.
I had a similar feeling recently, when the ba’al korei reached the words, “ve’yachan sham Yisrael neged hahar – and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Shemos 19:2), in parashas Yisro. Few comments of Rashi are better known than his explication of the use of the singular verb to describe the encampment of the bnei Yisrael at Sinai, as opposed to the plural verb ve’yachanu employed elsewhere: “K’ish echad b’lev echad – as one man with one heart.” When we read Rashi, we are saddened not just by the absence of such unity among Jews today, but by the fact that the unity he describes is beyond our powers of imagination. As with the Temple, we have no access to the state of being Rashi is describing, much less any idea of how it might be achieved again.
During the infamous Beilis Trial, one of the pieces of “evidence” cited by the prosecution to prove that Mendel Beilis, a Jew, was capable of killing a gentile boy without the slightest compunction was a the Talmudic drashah, “Atem krui’im adam . . . — You alone are called Adam.. . . ” The defense responded that the meaning of the drashah is that only the Jewish people can be referred to in the singular as a single man. Why? Because any time a Jew is persecuted or suffers anywhere in the world, every other Jew, no matter how far away he may be physically, cries out. No such concern with every co-religionist or fellow nationalist can be found among any other people.
And because the mutual concern of Jews for one another was so well-known – even if it was often one more accusation hurled at the Jews by anti-Semites – the jury had no trouble accepting that interpretation.
Sadly, that mutual concern is a rapidly fading phenomenon. Outside the Orthodox community, few American Jews spend any time reading about, much less worrying about, the fate of Jews in Venezuela, for instance. Less than half of American Jews under 35 say that the destruction of Israel, and with it half the world’s Jews, would be a personal tragedy for them.
But even if we limit ourselves only to Orthodox Jews, Jewish unity is much more a slogan than a reality. Orthodox Jews of all stripes believe that all Jews today are descended from those 600,000 souls who accepted the Torah at Sinai, and that, as a consequence, we are bound by a common fate and a common mission. Yet we probably have the hardest time of all imagining Jewish unity.
From time to time, I receive an Email from someone – usually an American and almost always a ba’al teshuva – soliciting my assistance for some touching plan he or she has conceived to bring all Orthodox Jews together on some shared project. These Emails inevitably leave me shaking my head sadly at the naivete of the author about the depth of the divisions in the Orthodox world.
Until today, one of the bitterest pills for those evicted from their homes and communities in the Gaza Strip is the feeling that the destruction of their beautiful shuls, their yeshivos, and the way of life that they had built up over nearly four decades did not pain many of their fellow Orthodox Jews that much. (Here, it must be said, that there has been extensive coverage of the eviction and the continuing plight of those thrown out of their homes in the chareidi media.)
In part, the divisions in the Orthodox world derive from the seriousness with which we take our religion. It is rare indeed for the respective theological beliefs of a Reform and Conservative Jew to be a source of tension between the two. Those beliefs, whatever they may be, are simply not important enough to either to constitute much of a barrier. Not so with us. We are often obsessed with distinctions based on the finest of differences.
In addition, we tend too frequently to define ourselves negatively rather than positively, in terms of what we are not rather than what we are. And that inevitably heightens tensions between groups. One cause of our negative self-definition is a lack of self-confidence. Both as individuals and as members of particular frum communities, we are all too aware of our own failings. So as a defense mechanism we look around for individuals or communities whose failures we can use to distract us from our own. If we felt better about ourselves, we would be far less concerned with the failures of others and more capable of admitting their strengths.
Finally, a misunderstanding of the meaning of unity makes its achievement more difficult. Unity does not mean sameness. Even in the Desert, our ancestors were encamped around the Tabernacle in separate Tribes, and each of those Tribes had its own unique attributes and role.
The confusion of unity with sameness prevents us from admitting the good points of others. We are afraid, for instance, that by speaking too much about the mesirus nefesh of Chabad shlichim, like the the Holzbergs in Mumbai, we will mark ourselves as Chabadniks.
What can be done? Frankly, I have no idea. But here are two things I intend to do this week. The first is to attend a fundraiser for the son of a rabbi in Har Nof, who never fails to ‘tchepper’ me for being chareidi. That son is doing remarkable kiruv work in Afula. The second is to go to the yahrtzeit eulogies for the eight martyred talmidim of Mercaz HaRav. That is partly kapparah for my unforgiveable failure to attend their levayos last year.
But more importantly it is an acknowledgment of the remarkable Torah qualities of eight young men raised in a community far removed from my own. Pretty small small stuff, I know. But only with such small steps might we once again be able to imagine being “as one man, with one heart.”
This article appeared in the Mishpacha, 25 February 2009.