Imagining the Unimaginable

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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.

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13 Responses

  1. Alvin Temperland says:

    I was originally quite put out when Jonathan Rosenblum carefully pointed out that his son-in-law’s visits to Mercaz Harav were intended “to share the geshmak of yeshivishe lomdus,” rather than to even leave open the possibility that one had anything to gain from such a visit. I commend him for recognizing, in this piece, that Torah values are thriving in communities “far” from his own.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “I remember when “the son of a rabbi in Har Nof” was in Monsey to raise money had to borrow a hat, otherwise the Chashuvah Rabbonim wouldn’t talk with him.”

    – The SOR (son of a rabbi) in question used to long-term-park his hat in my attic in Passaic but would often forget this important cash-prompting-prop here when venturing out to raise funds
    – To be fair, I don’t think this SOR would ever chas veshalom accuse these rabbonim that they “wouldn’t talk to him”. In general he is very well received by all bnei torah. I think he, as a pragmatist, knows he will get more $ by not showing his black srugie, and that is frankly all he cares about when he takes time away from his avoidas hakodesh to mess around here in chu”l.

  3. Dr Marianne Uitzinger says:

    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.

    if I may: this cry of the heart: it is possible to have such unity again. Yes, it is possible. when we look at G-d criteria for His manifest Presence in the Desert for 40 years, we need to live, live, live the Torah to its fullest again. and we shall see the Temple, peace and unity. let us begin living the Torah, one day at a time! let us begin within ourselves to make the difference! be Blessed, Dr Marianne

  4. zadok says:

    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.

    Both ideas and any efforts to create Shalom are wonderful.But still for one who has a blog that NEVER speaks against Merchaz HaRav , but conversly, is constantly speaking against other groups (e.g. Kannoim, ‘Askonim’, Yeshiva Bochurim etc.)efforts to promote Shalom would be even better if aimed in those individuals, or groups direction.

    On another note:When mention is made of one’s nonattendance of the Mercaz Harav Levyos, allow me to point out that I remain very disturbed over this (and many other blogs) finding Tommy Lapid worthy of eulogy but not L’Havdil Elef Havdolos, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum.

  5. Shades of Grey says:

    “One huge step toward unity might be for Agudah to invite Rav Hershel Shachter to address their next convention.”

    Were that to occur, it would surely signal the arrival of Moshiach :)

    Until then, I suppose Hashem wants an imperfect unity, as well as mutual respect, despite these impediments.

  6. Shira Schmidt says:

    A comment on the Merkaz Harav attack: the moving interview with the Yeshiva LeTze’irim (Yashlatz)head Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss can now be seen with English subtitles at part1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIqY7kD4vbI
    part2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwd8p5fq-I4&feature=channel_page
    He was interviewed by secular Ilana Dayan on Israeli TV a few days after the attack.
    A comment on the Mumbai attacks: I was disappointed to see that on the page that the Jewish Observer dedicated to those Jews who were murdered, the word Chabad was not mentioned.

  7. BR says:

    I remember when “the son of a rabbi in Har Nof” was in Monsey to raise money had to borrow a hat, otherwise the Chashuvah Rabbonim wouldn’t talk with him.

  8. Harry Maryles says:

    Unity ought to be motivated by the fact that what unites us is far greater than what divides us.

    I often lament the fact that we do not have unity in Orthodoxy. I mostly blame the right wing for this. The rejection is largely one way.

    I am reminded of how hard Dr. Dov Revel tried to get Charedi Gedolim from Europe to give guest Shiurim in his Yeshiva, Yeshiva College (which ultimatly became YU) when they came to the US soliciting funds for their own Yeshivos. For the most part he succeeded. Can anyone in their wildest dreams see Rav Hershel Shachter even being invited to give a Shiur in Lakewood let alone actually giving one there?

    Outreach by MO to the right was again demonstrated a couple of years ago when an MO Rav in Teaneck invited 3 RW Gedolim to speak in his Shul. The reverse has never happened.

    When Dr. Lamm and Rav Hershel Shachter were invited to sit on the dais at the last DofYomi Siyum on Shas their presence was protested by certain of its members. Some of the wiser heads of Agudah prevailed and they were seated. But they were not acknowledged. Nor would they ever be allowed to address that august body.

    But some of the members of Agudah who constantly bash Modern Orthodoxy speak at Agudah functions all the time. They are embraced with open arms.

    As you so eloquently point out, unity does not mean sameness. It means acknowledging differences and respecting them even while disagreeing.

    One huge step toward unity might be for Agudah to invite Rav Hershel Shachter to address their next convention. Let the rejectionists walk if they don’t like it. They are the biggest impediment to unity there is.

  9. Yitzchak says:

    No such concern with every co-religionist or fellow nationalist can be found among any other people.

    Lo ra’iti eino re’ayah. Have you made a sufficiently broad sociological study of all religions that nations that enables you to make this sweeping generalization?

  10. Jewish Observer says:

    Shkoyach. Very impressed with your sincerity re: Afula. By the way, who among us has NOT been tcheppered by Rabbi G? :-)

  11. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Surrounded by hostile nations, our ancestors choose to split Shlomo HaMelech’s prosperous kingdom into two. Over the centuries they even managed to fight a few wars with each other. Does anything we do to screw outselves up surprise you anymore?

  12. Mr. Cohen says:

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Tsav,chapter 7:
    Rabbi Elazar HaKappar taught:
    Peace is great, because even if the Jewish People commit the worst sins, they are not judged severely if they are united.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Emor, end of chapter 17:
    When is G_d exalted?
    When the Jewish People are united.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Behaalotecha, chapter 11:
    When is His throne established Above?
    When the Jewish People are united as one.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Shoftim, chapter 18:
    Said Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar in the name of Rabbi:
    Great is the power of peace, because when Jews are United as one [to serve G_d], even if there is idolatry in them, they are not judged harshly.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Nitzabim, end of chapter 1:
    The Jews will not be rescued until they unite as one…
    when they unite, they receive the Divine Presence.

    Minor Tractates of the Talmud,
    Avot DeRabbi Natan, Chapter 40, Paragraph 12:
    The scattering of the wicked is good for them and good for the world.
    The scattering of the righteous is bad for them and bad for the world.
    The unity of the wicked is bad for them and bad for the world.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Tsav,chapter 7:
    Rabbi Elazar HaKappar taught: Peace is great, because even if the Jewish People commit the worst sins, they are not judged severely if they are united.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Emor, end of chapter 17:
    When is G_d exalted? When the Jewish People are united.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Behaalotecha, chapter 11:
    When is His throne established Above? When the Jewish People are united as one.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Shoftim, chapter 18:
    Said Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar in the name of Rabbi:
    Great is the power of peace, because when Jews are United as one [to serve G_d], even if there is idolatry in them, they are not judged harshly.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Nitzabim, end of chapter 1:
    The Jews will not be rescued until they unite as one…
    when they unite, they receive the Divine Presence.

    Rashi on Shemot / Exodus, chapter 9, verse 24:
    A miracle within a miracle:
    The fire and hail intermingled, even though the hail is water.
    To do the will of their Creator, they made peace with each other.

  13. Leah says:

    It seems that as every set of 6 months or so that goes by we as the Nation of Jews goes thru more than what has gone on for several years and several years before that and so on…I have heard rabbanim speak of this for a while now. I agree. If I also look at myself now as to where I was a few years ago I couldn’t agree more.
    I made it a point to help myself view my own Jewish Nation thru better (non-judgemental) eyes. I started with the Jewry that is Chabad. I had let go of preconceived notions and began to believe and speak that although I do not agree with all that one may stand for almost no one can match their selfless dedication as they literally go out into “bamidbar” for even one single fellow Jew to bring him or her back to Torah.
    The Mumbai attacks solidified the arrogance of my mistaken thoughts all of these years. How sad that it took the loss of life to complete my understanding of the truth. When one Jew is murdered all Jews bleed.