"The Mitzvah of Unity"
Rabbi Gary J Robuck
Delivered to the joint congregations (Progressive and Orthodox) of the ACT Jewish Community
In May of this year, Dr. Aaron Panken, the sitting President of the Hebrew Union College and a leading light for Progressive Judaism worldwide, was killed when the small plane he was piloting crashed in a wooded area in the Hudson Valley, New York. I was fortunate to have met Rabbi Panken during his visit to Sydney just a few years ago. I could see at once that he was both very nice and extraordinarily accomplished and most of all, passionate about his service to amcha – the Jewish people. My impressions were confirmed when in a Times of Israel obituary soon after his death at the age of only fifty-three, Rabbi Panken was described as an oheiv Yisrael – a lover of Israel. One associate said of him: “it was the mission of his life to create positive change in Eretz Yisrael, and he really lived it with every fibre of his being.”
I was thinking of Aaron when news again reached us this winter of rocket attacks in Israel’s south. In 2014, during the last Gaza war, Aaron was there, in the south, and made to find safety in a miklat, a shelter, as rockets exploded above. Naturally, being a rabbi, he later reflected on his experience and what he learned from it about the Jewish experience.
(In the shelters, he wrote) “babies, young children, teens, soldiers, the elderly are all there — the entire cycle of life walks down those stairs to seek safety... Those bedecked in yarmulkes or dressed in the black suits and hats of the haredi Orthodox stand alongside those who live Reform, Conservative, secular or more postmodern lives, along with Israeli Arabs, Druze, Christians and others.”
For a few minutes, Israelis experienced a glimpse of the sort of social equality and communal unity hinted at in the Midrash which says of Sinai that, kol Yisrael stood in “breathless silence” (there) and our people were one and our God, “one”. (M. Rabbah)
Aaron Panken’s description of a scene in a bomb shelter, as people of every description gathered and waited, may sound a bit like this passage from Parashat Nitzvim in Deuteronomy 29:9 that begins: Atem nitzavim hayom kul’chem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. “You stand this day, all of you before the Lord your God…your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp from woodchopper to water drawer…”
In the parasha, our Torah states that all Jews were to have equal access to and responsibility for Torah. We are told that the brit, the covenant established then is one for all time, and that even we today are bound to its terms no less than those who stood at the foot of Sinai.
Time and again, rabbinic literature too impresses upon us the importance of unity and equality. The half-shekel coin that was required of the all Israelites in support of the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle, is a case in point.
As a reminder: the collection of half-shekels was a vehicle for uniting the Jewish people in deed and action. The money was used to provide for the nation's spiritual needs - to supply the daily Temple offerings — as well as its material needs and everyone was to do their share (Shekalim 4:1–2). In a more fanciful Midrash, we are encouraged to think of ourselves, each of us individually, as just one half of a shekel. Only once we find our other half do we become, individually and as a people, shalem – whole.
Mutual responsibility is inherent to what it means to be a Jew. We call it, areivut. Areivut means that the entire nation of Israel is to be considered one body, ish echad, lev echad, “as one person, with one heart.”
An interesting and timely consequence of areivut is found in the recitation of the viddui, the confessional - words that will be on our tongues ten days from now on Yom Kippur. Among the transgressions mentioned, one finds sins that he or she knows have not been committed, neither intentionally nor inadvertently. So many people have over the years asked me, “why should I confess to sins I didn’t commit…? Like comedienne Jackie Mason they will say: I wasn’t there, I never heard, I never saw, I never knew…”
Addressing this question, the Ben Ish Chai writes: “The entire viddui, the confessional should be recited, including even those transgressions that a person knows he has not violated, because all of Israel is a single body, and all are responsible for one another.” (Chesed Le’Alafim)
Jewish unity has played a central role in the historical wellbeing of our people and remains vitally important to whatever success may be forthcoming in our Jewish story. For younger Jews especially, division and denomination is a turn off. For that reason, I applaud you for promoting a different model of community that makes it possible for us to stand together at this moment, Jews of different backgrounds and beliefs, as our ancestors did at Sinai. What you are doing under the skilled and inclusive leadership of Rabbi Eddi – what you have developed over these many years is nothing short of redemptive and is reminiscent of the way Martin Buber once described the Jewish people saying of us that we are like, “one bundle”.
“One bundle” – it’s a funny way of putting it but it got me thinking about a familiar parable.
Once, an old man was very ill and lay dying in his bed. He had four children who were always fighting with each other. He always worried about them and wanted to teach them a lesson so he asked his kids to come to him. When they came, the old man gave them a bundle of sticks and said, “Can you break these sticks?”
The first child tried to break the bundle but nothing happened. He tried very hard and finally gave up. Then it was the turn of the second child to try her luck. She thought it would be an easy task and picked up the sticks easily. She tried her best to break the sticks but nothing happened. Then, the third child tried to break the bundle of sticks, but she couldn’t do anything either.
Meanwhile, the youngest son jeered at his brother and sisters thinking they were very incompetent. He thought he was very clever and took one stick at a time and easily broke all of them.
Their old father then smiled at his children and said, “Children, do you understand what happened? It is always easy to break the sticks one by one. But when they are bundled together, none of you could break them. In the same way, you, my precious children, should always be together. No one will be able to hurt you then.” The four children realised what their father was trying to teach them and forgot all their enmity and learnt that unity is strength. From that day onwards, they never fought with each other and lived together in peace and harmony.
The idea of Jewish mutuality ought not be just a campaign mantra for the JCA or UIA but the way we “do our Jewish business”, unchained by uniformity and united in common purpose, as is the case here in our Canberra Jewish Community Centre.
Perhaps an example from Succot might suffice – I have always wanted to work Succot into a Yamim Noraim sermon and unfortunately, I will not be here to celebrate the chag with you. It is a Midrash that describes the 4 types of Jews represented by the 4 species used in the Mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog. Many will be familiar with it.
The Etrog (citron), a tasty and fragrant fruit represents a Jew who learns Torah and performs good deeds (mitzvot). The Lulav (leaves from a date palm) produces a fruit that is tasty but has no smell. The Lulav represents the Jew who learns Torah but does not perform other mitzvot. The Hadas, (myrtle) a fragrant branch, represents the Jew who performs good deeds but does not study Torah. Lastly the Aravah (willow), has neither taste nor aroma, represents a Jew with interest neither in learning nor good deeds.
All four species, taken together on Succot, create an effect greater than its individual parts. All four species are required in order to fulfill this mitzvah, each of the four types of Jews has a quality to contribute to Am Yisrael that the other three lack. Three are not enough. So too, all Jews, coming together as one, are required to further the cause of Am Yisrael - the People of Israel.
Friends, our generation faces great challenges. Our Lulav is shaken by the insults and lies of our enemies – our many detractors, here, in the UN, in the cries of white supremacists in Charlottesville, “Jews will not replace us”, in the EU, by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, around the Middle East and throughout the world. To weather a wind so harsh as this, means banding together not just with Progressive Jews or Othodox Jew but with all types of Jews; Jews of all ages, all beliefs, to do our individual part and to unite as one, as does the Etrog, Lulav, Hadas, and Aravah and to pledge this yontif to do everything possible to strengthen and support the welfare of our Jewish people, however and whenever we can.
Whether in a shelter in Tel Aviv, or at the foot of Sinai, in triumph, in adversity or when rallied around a common goal, our people have stood together. At Masada the zealots gave their lives en masse to sanctify their beliefs. 2000 years later, the chalutzim built the foundations of a Jewish state on the same soil by means of their extraordinary toil and sacrifice. In the Shoah we suffered and died together. We fought together for the release of Jews in the FSU, in Ethiopia and in the Arab lands. Areivut – shared responsibility is part of our operating system and as a result, we today are mitzvah-bound to promote and to participate in activities that enhance Jewish unity and strengthen the Jewish people here in Canberra or wherever we may be.
I want to conclude by sharing with you three brief but penetrating insights. One is the observation of a contemporary liberal rabbi, Corey Helfand, the second, an inspired kabbalistic teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and the third, the mystic prayer of a great gadol, Rav Kook. First this from my rabbinic colleague Corey Helfand who, should he ever read this, will no doubt be chuffed to find himself in such illustrious company. He wrote: “there is tremendous strength, courage and wisdom in our standing together, side by side, in unity with our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. In a time of rising anti-Semitic sentiment, in an era when Jewish practice is declining and Jews and especially Israel are under the microscope, it’s time for us to stand up and stick together. Whether it’s Mitzvoth, values, ethics, religion or culture that makes you Jewish, let’s embrace and be proud of our Jewish identity, standing together as a connected and supportive community, proud of our Jewishness.”
The BESHT, The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidic Judaism in the 18th century also helps us to understand the nature and necessity of joining together as an am echad, as one people, and the rewards that come with it: “unity”, he said, “is not necessarily about everyone agreeing, but about connectedness. A Jew needs to be connected to one’s fellow, to love the other and to always cleave to the other, being strong for the other, until all of Israel becomes as one...for only by means of connectedness and cleaving one to the other can we reach a high level and accomplish greatness…” (From Otzar Mishle Hassidim)
Finally, Rav Kook, the early 20th century figure whose love and patience for his people was greater even than Moshe Rabbeinu’s. His people’s interests were always greater than his own and with their needs in mind he once asked (himself): “Who am I without you?” He answered, “Bachem ani chai” — “In you I live. In your life my life has deeper meaning. In your glory I am glorified. In your affliction, I am cast down. Each of you, each individual soul, is a glowing spark of that torch eternal, kindling the light of life for me. You give meaning to (my) life, to (my) labor, to learning, to prayer, to song and hope. With you, my people, my kinfolk, my mother— source of my life—with you I soar the wide spaces of the world. In your eternity, I have life eternal.”
The Jewish world is changing. Those who stood united at the foot of Sinai, from “woodchopper to water drawer”, turn to us now asking that we too stand together, become more deeply committed to congregation, to community and to k’lal Yisrael and imbue our hearts with a common spirit and a shared desire to strengthen Israel; our land and our people.