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Devarim: Leaders That Unite

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A 1934 year old system that teaches us how to deal with destruction, consolation and renewal

– Week 3 –

The drama thickens. We now enter the saddest nine days of the year, the third and final of the Three Weeks, concluding with Tisha B’Av, which marks the tragic day both Temples were destroyed.

But even as we enter this dark period, we are comforted by the fact that precisely in this time, when the ‘light’ becomes entirely concealed and the ‘teacher’ falls completely silent as he withdraws into the deepest recesses of his mind, the greatest revelation is being born (see last week’s essay).

Indeed, the Nine Days begin with Rosh Chodosh Menachem Av (the new moon of the month of Av). Menachem means ‘to comfort.’ We are comforted by G-d – and we comfort each other – in these difficult times. As the new moon is born we do not immediately see its light. It will take fifteen days for the moon to grow into a full illuminating sphere; but when it does it becomes the greatest holiday of the year (the 15th of Av which the Mishne describes as being a holiday like no other), because light born out of darkness can never be extinguished.

In these days Moses has returned to Sinai (for what would be the second period of Moses being on the mountain for 40 days) to beseech G-d that He forgive the people for their grave sin of the Golden Calf. Down below we do not see and hear; but above true hope is being hatched – hope that would enter our hemisphere on Yom Kippur (at the conclusion of the third period of 40 days).

Finally, the final and last Shabbos before Tisha b’Av is called Shabbos Chazon, literally the ‘Shabbos of Vision’  (named after the first word of this week’s haftorah about Isaiah’s prophetic vision). Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev tells us that on this Shabbos everyone is shown ‘from afar’ the third Holy Temple, in order to inspire and motivate us to do our part in preparing ourselves and the world for the great revelation of the Third Temple in the final Redemption.

Again, we see how the greatest structure and revelation is being born in the throes of loss and destruction.

The big question is: What can we do to facilitate the process? True, these teachings are wonderful philosophies, informing us that the deepest growth is achieved in pain and loss and we should therefore not be demoralized by the darkness. But it’s ‘easier said than done;’ when we find ourselves at a loss in emotional pain, philosophy simply isn’t enough. A mind cannot speak to a bleeding heart. What can we then do when we have experienced trauma? How can we concretely access the deeper light that lies within the shadows?

To help us answer this question we have with us two great leaders, whose yahrzeits we observe and comfort us during these Nine gloomy days: Aaron the High Priest and the holy Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria), whose yahrzeits are respectively on Rosh Chodosh Av and the 5th of Av.

Of all luminaries, why are these two yahrzeits in this particular time period?

In times of crisis we are in need of the most powerful strengths and most vital tools to endure and grow through our challenging experiences.

Aaron the High Priest and the Arizal were distinguished in their ability to unite all the people. When Aaron passed away, the Torah states that the ‘entire nation cried’ and mourned after him – a statement that is reserved for Aaron alone, distinguishing him even from Moses. Rashi explains that Aaron was a pursuer of peace, he fostered love between all the people and as such was beloved and remembered by the entire nation.

The Arizal was a unique phenomenon of his own, perhaps unprecedented in history as one who united all factions and denominations.

And this is no small feat. Historically we always find different schools of thought within Judaism. The school of Shammai and the school of Hillel is the classical example. The entire Talmud is essentially a document driven by differing if not opposing views.  Diversity in Torah is not seen as a negative, but actually a fundamentally positive force. We are not discussing petty, political and ego-driven disputes, nor are we addressing arguments driven by people’s personal opinions. But even within the framework of Torah discussion, indeed the Torah process itself is built upon dialogue, disagreement, challenges and counter challenges. The fundamental basics are indisputable as is the halacha, the final ruling on any given matter. However, like musical notes, the essential notes are unwavering, yet music is a result of the infinite combinations of these notes.

Torah scholarship in all generations is characterized by the variety of opinions. Teachers and leaders were not always unilaterally embraced right from the outset. Even Moses was not initially accepted by the Jewish people, and even after he was, we still find the insurgent Korach and other dissenters.

There were scholars who opposed Maimonides (Rambam), to the extent that some of his books were burned! (Maimonides was not universally accepted until Nachmanides (Ramban) came out with a strong defense on his behalf). Same with the Baal Shem Tov.

Among the few exceptions – if not the only exception is the holy Arizal. Though he lived a mere 38 years (1534-1572), and all his teachings took place in a period of 20 months (!), all the great leaders and scholars of the time, including many his senior, embraced him immediately as an absolute authority. To this day the Arzial remains the pre-eminent and final authority in all areas of Jewish mysticism and also halacha. Ashkenazim and Sefardim, Chassidim and Misnagdim, Litivish or not – everyone embraced the Arizal. His many students include Reb Chaim Vital, The Alsheich, the Beis Yosef (Reb Yosef Karo), compiler of the Shulchan Aruch. The Mogen Avraham (Shulchan Aruch gloss) cites the Arizal countless times in matters of law universally accepted today.

The Arizal’s unifying achievement is absolutely amazing considering how rare it is to find unanimous approval of anyone even in early generations, let alone in later ones. Here’s a man, whose 430rd yahrzeit we honor this year, who united all Jews from all backgrounds and beliefs, and achieved this in 20 months!

[I have not completed my research on the topic, and would appreciate comments from any reader for more examples of leaders universally and immediately accepted].

What was unique about the Arizal that caused this unprecedented acceptance and unification?

No mortal can presume to know the complete answer. Yet, perhaps we can be enlightened by looking for another unifying leader: The Talmudic sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai. Rebbe Shimeon was one of the few students of Rabbi Akiva who survived the plague that struck 30,000 of his colleagues as a result of their disrespect for each other. Rebbe Shimeon was a prime example of his master, Rabbi Akiva’s fundamental teaching: “Love your fellow as yourself – this is the cardinal principle of Torah.”

Throughout the Talmud we find that Rebbe Shimeon had unique attributes which made him stand out among all his colleagues. And like the Arizal, Rebbe Shimeon is a unifying force – his yahrzeit on Lag B’Omer is celebrated by Jews of all backgrounds. His is the only yahrzeit that has become a holiday among all the people.

What was the uniqueness of the Rashbi (Rebbe Shimeon Bar Yochai) and what commonality does he share with the Arizal?

Both of them openly united and integrated both dimensions of Torah –the esoteric and the exoteric, the Talmudic and the mystical – the body and soul of Torah. Rashbi is both one of the greatest Talmud scholars and the author of the Zohar, the classical work of Kabbalah. Same with the Arizal.

True unity and love is only possible when we connect with the soul. Materialism divides. Spirituality unites. The physical – the corporeal – is inherently divisive. Everything material occupies its space (and time), and thus precludes another from occupying its space. If you give some of your material possessions to another, you have less quantitatively. Qualitatively – spiritually – you however become wealthier. Spirit unites. Two people can occupy different spaces but their soul, which transcends space (and time) unites them as one.

Even in Torah we must connect the study of the “body” of Torah with its soul. As the Talmud tells us, one who studies Torah and forgets to acknowledge G-d through the blessing on Torah will ultimately forsake the Torah! Strong words… Words that would serve us well and we should take to heart as we witness far too many abuses of Torah law, and people living perhaps by the letter of the law but entirely missing its spirit. It therefore should be no wonder that when the soul of Torah is missing or not integrated with its body, Torah can cause people to be divisive and even obnoxious (“novel b’rshus ha’Torah”) or hateful to others. When the soul is missing, when G-d is taken out of the picture, Torah itself is fundamentally compromised and lost.

The Rashbi and the Arizal united the ‘body and soul’ of Torah, so they also united the body and soul of people – and thus united all people, regardless of background and school of thought.

Of all days of the year, this message of unity is necessary more than ever in the loneliest Nine Days of the year. When we experience loss, what is even worse than the initial pain is the loneliness it creates. We feel alone in the world. The book of Lamentations (Eicha) recited on Tisha B’Av begins: “Eicha yoshvo bodod,” “Oh, how [sad it is that] she sits alone…”

Aaron and the Arizal (whose yahrzeits are in these days) teach us – in the difficult Nine Days – what it takes to reverse pain and destruction (as does the Rashbi on Lag B’Omer during the other sad period of the calendar: the 49 days of Omer between Passover and Shavuot). The Temple was destroyed because of ‘baseless hatred.’ The antidote is ‘baseless love.’ By connecting to our own soul and the soul of others we learn to transcend our material pettiness, our superficial differences, and embrace each other as one. Looking at another’s physical being alone does not unite us. We may even be repulsed by another’s appearance or behavior. By looking at the other’s soul – and recognizing its Divine features – we can learn to love everyone.

In these Nine Days we should all intensify our Torah study, particularly the ‘soul’ of Torah (as taught by the Arizal), and in charity – both which unite us with each other. When we study spirituality it broaden our horizons, helping us transcend our differences.

Raise you eyes, set your sights to higher spiritual vistas, and you will find your ability to co-exist and to love – both yourself and others – grow in direct proportion to your own spiritual awareness.

So, here’s the answer to the question: What can each of us do to access the inner light in times of darkness? We can – and must – become more spiritual and more loving. “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them near to the Torah.” Our loving acts open up the inner resources that lay hidden in the Nine Days.

With all that is going on in the world today, what better message is there than this, and what better messengers do we have than Aaron and the Arizal?

They are here with us during the Nine Days. Are we accessing them?

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