Friday, February 2, 2018

Is Unity Possible?

Is unity possible?

Well, what kind of unity? We live in the UNITED States.  That’s a form of unity - even if a recent Pew Center survey found that people are more hostile toward the opinions of members of the other party than ever before. 

How about Jewish unity?

I can hear you laughing all the way from Jerusalem (where I’m writing this post).

I’d like to propose that it’s more possible than you think.  It all depends on what unity means. 

What is unity?  The dictionary definition is “the state of being united or joined as a whole.”

Those are two different things.  Being united requires common purpose and shared goals and values. Joined as a whole is quite different.  It doesn’t necessarily mean agreement or even consensus.  This type of unity requires acknowledging being in the same boat.  Instead of lofty goals, this unity requires us to realize we can’t make a hole under our seat without everyone sinking. 

This is the perfect week to think about unity.  At Sinai, the Jewish nation received the Torah in unity. The Torah famously describes the nation’s arrival at Sinai (Shemot 19:2)

וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

Having journeyed from Rephidim, the Israelites entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.

Rashi notes that the Hebrew word וַיִחַן (encamped) is the singular form of the verb even though the plural form is used for the other verbs in the verse.  This comes to teach that, as they received the Torah at Sinai, the nation was united as one: כאיש אחד בלב אחד - as one person with one heart. 

The Jews achieved unity in the united sense of the word. 

Less well known is the concluding comment of Rashi:

אבל שאר כל החניות בתרעומת ובמחלוקת:

All the other encampments were divided with complaints and with strife. 

Unity in the united sense of the word didn’t last.  

Maybe that’s ok.   

There’s that other definition of unity when people join together as a whole even if they’re not completely united.  This type of unity exists even when there are complaints, divisions, and strife. 

Once the Jewish people experienced their glorious moment of united unity, there was little chance of maintaining such a state.  There would be no Judaism without that moment.  At the same time, that unity is not really sustainable.  Going forward, being joined as a whole would have to suffice - warts and all. 

This unity is not a fallback position.  It is the unity of Jerusalem described in Tehillim 122:3:

יְרוּשָׁלִַ֥ם הַבְּנוּיָ֑ה כְּ֝עִ֗יר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּ֥הּ יַחְדָּֽו׃

Jerusalem built up, a city joined together.

I feel this kind of unity every time I visit Jerusalem.  For all the headlines and loud disagreements over politics and religion, Jerusalem is alive and vibrant and full of all different kinds of people.  It is the city in which everyone joins to create a whole even if everyone is not united. 

I feel this type of unity attending my Rabbinic Learning Initiative (RLI) seminar at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  I am one of 26 North American rabbis studying together over three years and exploring the critical issues facing Judaism today.  It would be an understatement to say we are diverse.  We come from all of the denominations; have different religious, political and social views; and I sometimes feel we may not mean the same thing when we’re talking about Judaism.  At the same time, we’re joined together as a whole. 

This Shabbat, we’ve designed services that will include everyone.  It will look very different from what any of us are used to, but it will also be respectful and capable of including everyone.

We had our one shining moment of united unity at Sinai.  Future stops along the journey have been full of complaints and strife.  Jerusalem reminds us all of the ability to join people together.  Whether we are making room for people to the right of us or the left of us, more religious and observant or less so, let’s strive to create a unity where we are all joined together. 

We’re all joined together in the same boat.  We can’t survive if anyone decides to make a hole under their own seat. 

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