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Bamidbar: The Blessing of Diversity

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Jerusalem 2009 Part II

Old City, Jerusalem. May 2009 –

Friday before dusk I wander down to the Wall – the Western Wall – where Jews from all over the city and all over the world will be coming to pray the Shabbat services. As I make my way down one of the many winding backstairs that lead from the Rova (the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem) to the Wall, I discover, halfway down, a little convenient corner where you can span the entire 180-degree panorama, seeing people streaming to the Wall from all directions, framed against the backdrop of the Temple Mount and the various structures that occupy the desolate space.

I perch myself in this cleft and stare at a fascinating spectacle: As the brilliant sun sets over the ancient roofs and haunted trees of the city, Jews are arriving to the Wall from every which way: the Dung Gate (Shaar ha’Ashpah) to the east, the Damascus Gate (Shaar Shechem) to the west, the Jaffa Gate through the Arab shuk to the southwest, and down the main stairs from the Rova to the southeast.

Men, women and children of all backgrounds and dress. Tourists, groups from Gambia, Germany and Oklahoma City, mixed in with locals and visitors, Jews wearing kipot (yarmulkes, head-coverings) of every possible size and fabric; Charedim with kapotos (long coats) and shtreimlach (fur hats), of different colors and shapes, women with turbans and sheitlach (wigs), others dressed in modern suits and skirts, some with hats, black or otherwise, others with no hats  – every persuasion and denomination well represented – all gathering in the large square that stands in the shadow of the looming Wall.

Where else can you see a sight like this? There are thousands of synagogues around the world, but each one is generally attended by and caters to a particular group. You don’t usually find much diversity, at least in dress and customs, in most synagogues. But here, everyone sees this as their personal shul. It doesn’t hurt that there are no walled structures to divide the people.

And then, through the large gate to the right, hundreds of Israeli soldiers come marching in, clad in their distinctive green uniforms. I’m told later that this is one of their “off” Shabbosim, when they gather at the Wall to pray with the multitudes. But they stay initially apart, singing some particular songs, about Jewish perpetuity (Am Yisrael Chai) unity (shevet achim gam yachad), faith (anachnu ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim ve’ein lanu al mi lehisha’en ela al avinu she’ba’shamaim; Yisrael, Yisrael betach b’HaShem, ezram umeginam hu), and the one that brought a lump in my throat – kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od (the entire world is a small narrow bridge): As they finished the first stanza of the song, they instinctively huddled up together, several hundred of them, and in unison, raised their voices to the highest decibel, and sang the second stanza, ve’ha’ikkar, lo lefached klal (and the main thing is not to fear at all)…

Suddenly, the soldiers all turned their attention to a young man, not in uniform, sitting at the side, motioning him to join them. In order to get a better view of what was happening I climbed down all the steps, down to the plaza. The young man they were beckoning was in crutches, clearly a casualty of war, and his fellow soldiers were lifting him up on their shoulders and dancing to the tune of anachnu ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim ve’ein lanu al mi lehisha’en ela al avinu she’ba’shamaim – we are believers, children of believers, and we have no one to depend on except our Father in heaven.

There were not many dry eyes amongst those witnessing this sight.

The soldiers then made their way to the Wall and mingled with the other praying masses.

Four, maybe five thousand people were gathered at the Wall that evening – and as diverse as the colors of any rainbow.

Near me, at the top of the plaza a young man and woman were seemingly oblivious to the entire scene. As I got closer to them I saw that they were wearing media credentials from Israeli TV – no cameras or anything, just these two. I said to them (in Hebrew), “Isn’t it beautiful to see this gathering of so many Jews from so many different backgrounds?” One of them snickered, “Don’t be deceived by appearances. Beneath the surface the different groups dislike and disrespect each other. And each group on their own is riddled with corruption and pettiness. Yes, this is great scene for photo-ops, but I wonder how wholesome the lives of these different people are when they go back home.”

Whew! Like a sudden splash of cold water, this jolting dose of cynicism – if you ever needed one – doused all my warm and idealized “romantic” descriptions…

Oh yes, I am quite aware of the problems our families and communities are facing today. I wish I didn’t know what I did about the divisiveness between different groups, each claiming a monopoly on their version of Judaism. In the work I do, I am reminded almost on a daily basis of the damage done by self-righteous, cloistered communities, who are great at judging others, at meting out retribution and at condescension. Systems that ignore abuse and care more about image than truth. Many children and adults have been deeply hurt and wounded by some of our “established” structures. And it is not always a source of pride or easy to defend the trappings of conformity that dominate certain religious circles.

Not to suggest that the Jewish world is in any way unique; most of these problems exist – and are even inherent – to any group, especially one that is driven by strict parameters. Just look at the damage done to our economy by greed and self-interest. Yet for Jews, at least from the high standard to which I uphold Judaism, anything that reeks from narrow-mindedness is particularly disturbing. From the universal perspective of Judaism and its expansive vision of life – one that has introduced some of the most fundamental principles of freedom and civilization to the world – it is shameful and very demeaning to see the divisiveness of different communities and their own provincial “small-town politics” (we call it “klein-shteteldike politik” in Yiddish) or worse.

No one need remind me of these and other unpleasant realities. But there is something about the broad diversity of the Jews gathering here at the Wall – a certain magic – that cannot easily be dismissed with the sober awareness of internal discords that plague the community.

And then I remember the puzzling and paradoxical Talmudic statement: “G-d has done charity with the Jewish people by spreading them out amongst the nations.” Charity?! The dispersion amongst the nations is considered to be an aberration, a curse – “because of our sins were we expelled from our country” and exiled amongst the nations. Every day we pray for “kibutz goliyot,” the ingathering and return of the exiles. How then does the Talmud consider this scattering as Divine charity?!

One simple yet profound answer lays in understanding the initial root of exile. Why was the Holy Temple destroyed and the people expelled from their land? Because, says the Talmud, of baseless divisiveness (sinas chinam). The people took for granted the holiness in their midst and were no longer united by its power. They were therefore no longer worthy of living together in a unified Jerusalem and Temple.

When people are humble and sublimate themselves to a higher calling, their powerful commitment permeates their beings to the point that it tempers their self-interests, not allowing it to rip the people apart. The people then have established a healthy climate and deserve to live as a unified community – diverse but united by a cause greater than, and one that transcends, individual interests.

However, when this dedication and resulting unity is not in place, then the curse would be far greater were they to remain together. Their differing interests would ultimately bring them to be at each other’s throats until they would self-destruct. In a corrupt environment, those in power – not driven by humility – will hurt all those under their control.

G-d therefore did a great tzedakah – charity – by dispersing the people, not allowing them to destroy each other, and not allowing any one individual or entity to control the entire community. Instead, groups of Jews migrated to different countries and regions, each building their own individual community, each with their own infrastructures, authorities and customs – all based on the general guiding principles of Torah – with no one community or group controlling the destiny of the other communities.

In pure times, such dispersion is a curse. In corrupt times, this dispersion is a blessing. A life saver, actually. The way to clean out disease is to diversify the gene pool. Many monarchial families, for instance, suffered from horrible diseases (namely hemophilia) due to their inbreeding, by marrying cousins and other imnmediate family. When disease has entered the system it’s critical to not “recycle” stale air, but to broaden and diversify the genetic pool through marrying strangers.

Now we stand almost two thousand years later from the time when the Romans destroyed the second Temple. All that remains is a partial wall – the Western Wall. Throughout these two millennia, communities have been built all over the globe – spreading, diversifying further and further from generation to generation. This dispersion in itself is a curse and it has not always led to positive things; but built into it is a profound immunity system: Like organs in an infected body, each organ works on building up its strength, and no one organ, no matter how diseased, can destroy the others. On the contrary, as an organ gets stronger it helps heal the other organs as well. When the disease of exile descended upon the world, G-d in His kindness dispersed the people, with each community contributing, strengthening and building up one dimension of the larger organism, and no one community, no matter how corrupt, can destroy the others.

Now, here we stand before this Wall, and under its stony gaze gather Jews from every possible background – Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Chassidim, Litvish, Orthodox, modern Orthodox, non-affiliated, and everything in between, over and under, each group subdivided into many more splintered groups; Minyanim galore: Carelbach, Yeshivat HaKotel, Mizrachi. The list goes on and on.

Each group, no doubt, has their challenges. But collectively, as we look from heaven – from the Divine perspective – we can see a great charity: Each community contributes one piece of an elaborate mosaic. Some are strong in their devotion, some in their academia, some in prayer, while others in good deeds and charity; some in love and kindness, others in discipline; some in chesed, others in gevurah or tiferet, some in netzach, others in hod, yesod  or malchus. Some in their non-compromise, others in their compromises; some in joy, others in introspection. Some synagogues are great for Simchat Torah – and even their Rosh Hashana looks like Simchat Torah; and others have their Simchat Torah look like Rosh Hashana.

Like different musical notes in a large composition, each community, group or even individual, contributes his or her unique note.

Obviously, there are some who may have wandered away from the standard – from the basic Torah axioms necessary to keep the organism alive. Diversity is not enough to preserve Judaism. The diversity has to be based on unwavering principles and solid foundations that are not changeable. Like music, even when you play your unique note it does have its parameters as a musical note. But even when the music may have been compromised, we can always learn things from each other. Many lessons can be gleaned from the very challenges that we all uniquely face.

And each one, with their piece of the mosaic, with their note, doing their part, contributing to a greater good – we create a healthier whole, which ultimately will allow us to return, each from our corner of the universe where we have survived and developed our particular methods of growth, and reunite in one unified, indivisible Jerusalem, with the Holy Temple at its center – this time indestructible, because it grew and was bred from the diversity, and having withstood the “disease” that caused the exile in the first place, now the organism will have built an immunity to all forms of divisiveness.

I gaze at the sight before me – the Jews from all corners of the world who have gathered here. Despite their own differences and even intolerance of each other – despite themselves and their own awareness (or lack thereof) their very diversity, coming together at this Wall, is a testimony to the Divine kindness and foresight, reflecting a higher truth that would preserve the nation through its harsh exile.

I gaze at the sight before me and see a microcosm of times soon to come when we will, in our rich diversity, stand as one, in a united Jerusalem.

Photo by Avital Pinnick/Flickr.

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s.e. coleman

Was doing some research on pros and cons of Palestinian state and Adullam, I know unrelated but that is what started it AND I remember the title of your last message in the inbox. I read it and OF COURSE per usual, it was moving, I spoke before I read a passage and it was what you wrote, I put myself beside you to see the orchestration of Our Father and read the interesting perspective that only you Simon can impart. Well done as always, poignant, brave, insightful! Shalom!

Halvah5200

It was uplifting to read this article which acknowledged the rifts within Judaism while providing a unifying principle. Should be required reading for all branches.

Mitchell

Excellent article. Ive felt exactly the same way!
Thanks
Mitchell

Tamara Kalir

a beautifully inspirational piece

Esther Sarah Evans

bH
I am still hoping and praying that someone will speak with Noam Shalit,
will convince him to ask the whole Tzibur – Klal Yisrael – to join him in keeping Shabbat – and thus do our collective best to save Gilad and everyone and everything dear to us all. May HaShem show us His great Rachamim and Chesed right now.

Chaim Marcus

that was quite a piece.

well written.

thank you.

Sally Dietz

This is perfect timing as I am researching my Jewish roots and path from Jerusalem and how to return to Jerusalem after generations of travel.
Thank you always for your Spiritual wisdom. Sally Dietz in Santa Rosa California

Irwin Harelick

Your thoughtful and inspiring essay reminded me of an uplifting moment in my own life. Years ago as a tourist in Rome I visited the triumphal arch built to honor Titus upon his destruction of the second temple. While gazing at this massive structure dedicated to the beginning of 2000 years of exile, I noticed that someone had painted graffiti on it. There before my eyes in Hebrew were the words Am Yisroel Chai meh attah vodd olam. I didnt know who wrote it or where the writer was from but it felt like a miracle: the Jews and Judaism… Read more »

This article is a part of the bridge that is so much needed at this point in our history. May Hashem continue to use you and your thoughtful reflections to help each one of us to cross the bridges over the chasms that keep us apart. G-d bless you.

alan

BEAUTIFUL AND HEARTFELT ARTICLE AS THIS IS,MY QUESTION IS:HOW MANY CHABAD SHULSD AND HOUSES COMMEMORATE LITURGICALLY THE MIRACLE OF 1967 AND YOM YERUSHALAYIM.
USING JERUSALEM IS NOT THE PROGRAMMATIC SOLUTION TO ACTUALLY SAVING JERUSALEM AND THANKING G-D FOR HIS MIRACLE OF 67.