Next week, Jews around the world will come out in droves to usher in and celebrate the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is synonymous with so many wonderful traditions, including family dinners, round challahs, apples dipped in honey, the attention-grabbing blast of the shofar and, of course, a little guilt that we haven’t been in services since the last High Holy Days.
In the year to come, I want to pray for something a little different, a new tradition, or perhaps an old one in need of revival: Jewish unity. I’m not necessarily asking that we always agree nor do I expect every Jew to start coming to synagogue on a regular basis (although we’d love to welcome you). But wouldn’t it be nice if 5775 brought in a real sense that we’re in this together, as Jews, as Jewish community?
In the second part of this week’s double portion, Moses reminds the entire community to gather together to listen to the public reading of the Torah. “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God … you shall read this teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this teaching…” (Deuteronomy 31:11-13).
There are two powerful aspects of this selection. First, the act of studying Jewish tradition is multigenerational and accessible to every individual, as we learned earlier in the first portion, “This instruction which I enjoin upon you … is [not] beyond reach. … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). The second part, perhaps even more profound, is that it is incumbent upon the entire Jewish community to join together and become linked through this rich teaching. The true blessing given to us by God is the Torah of unity.
The founder of Hassidic Judaism in the 18th century, the Ba’al Shem Tov, explains that unity is not necessarily about everyone agreeing, one person with the other, but about connectedness. “How much a Jew needs to be connected to one’s fellow, to love the other and to always cleave to the other so that all of Israel becomes as one, a person loving one’s fellow and saying ‘Be strong’ to the other. For only by means of connectedness and cleaving one to the other can they reach a high level and accomplish greatness in prayer together.” (From Ba’al Shem Tov’s Otzar Mishle Hassidim). So what does this mean in practice? To this the Ba’al Shem Tov offers a parable.
There was once a time when the residents of a land in warmer climate saw a new bird, the likeness of which they had never seen, both in beauty and in form, that migrated along with the other birds during the winter. Yet it was difficult to truly appreciate the bird’s beauty because it rested on the town’s tallest tree. When the king heard the news, he asked all of the people to gather, so that one person could climb on the shoulders of the second and another on top of that person’s shoulders until they reached the treetop. As they climbed higher and higher, one person on the shoulders of the person below, the people at the bottom grew impatient standing and waiting and decided to leave, causing everyone above to fall to the ground. Consequently, the beautiful bird remained a mystery. The king had hoped that each person would assist the other so that together, they could reach the treetop. But by having even one person abandon his or her place, the collective failed.
As we begin the New Year, I take to heart the lesson of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the need to recognize that 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 mitzvot, 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. Who knows? In doing so, we might actually be able to reach the heights of love and unity, wholeness and peace, for all of humanity.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.