March 31, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
One of the most distinctive qualities of Jews everywhere in the world has always been our ability to disagree and remain in dialogue. That is, we argue but stick together. Jewish families are typically loud, contentious, and verbally energetic. Jewish organizations are active, engaged, and often contentious. But we have an ability, after thousands of years of overcoming adversity, to pull together in spite of our many, many differences. Most of the time.
I was reflecting on this fact of Jewish life the last few days. In truth, both in our homes and in our organizational life, we often sound like we are engaged in something closer to courtroom combat than the loving and harmonious lives that we aspire to living. This friction is something typical of every Jewish group I have ever had the privilege of being a part of, and to someone not initiated into the verbal thrust-and-parry natural to Jews it can seem that there is real animosity when the situation is quite different than that at heart. It’s just that in Jewish life everyone considers himself or herself to be an expert on, well, everything, and when you get more than one maven in a room at the same time he or she is each certain to be certain that they are right about everything, or at least whatever it is you are talking about at the moment.
This verbal vigor is a great shock to those not raised in loud Jewish homes, and it inevitably leads some people to conclude that Jews are the most difficult, contentious lot ever formed by God. And that’s not counting how it is to be part of a Jewish organization or organizational leadership, which frequently seems a great deal like herding cats…
But the real point is not that we Jews can argue; everyone knows that. It’s that in spite of these arguments we are able to overcome our differences and work together to accomplish really great things. And that underneath the dispute of the moment we fully understand that we are not really fully breiges with anyone, that we intend to remain in conversation and dialogue and community no matter what we may say in the heat of the moment. Real Jewish identity means understanding that we can disagree and yet remain connected.
I’m not celebrating the contentious quality of Jewish life, but simply noting that it is a fact—and that it also camouflages a more essential unity that undergirds the whole of the Jewish community. We might appear not to like each other very much in the moment, but we know that ultimately we are all in this together. We are one people, one large, dysfunctional family that may have its challenges and certainly its conflicts but that sticks together, particularly when the going gets rough.
The Talmud has two famous sayings on this subject. The first is from the Mishnah, the first great code of Jewish law, in Pirkei Avot, the ethical greatest hits of that text: kol machloket l’shem shamayim sofah l’hitkayem, v’sheinah l’shem shamayim, lo sofah l’hitkayem it says, any argument fought for the sake of heaven, will endure, but an argument not for the sake of heaven will not last. That is, a conflict in which both parties are motivated to find the best course to serve God will create enduring and positive results. But a conflict not fought for the sake of heaven, that is engaged in to further ego and self-interest will not create enduring or positive results. When we argue in order to determine the truly best course we are simply trying to figure out how best to serve God. When we are arguing to prove how great we ourselves think we are we are not serving God, and those efforts are destined to fail…
And the second great quote is kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, every Jew is responsible for every other Jew. That means that in times serious and sober or celebratory and joyous we all have an obligation to each other. When a Jew is in difficult circumstances we must respond by working to assist them. When members of our people are physically endangered it is our obligation to rescue them. And when a Jew celebrates, we all celebrate with her or him.
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh: each member of the peoplehood of Israel is obligated to every other. What could be clearer?
But it is when we remember both of these Talmudic teachings then our arguments will, ultimately, lead us to goodness and unity. In a way, they become arguments to find God, rather than arguments to try to exalt ourselves. And according to Jewish tradition, that is exactly what God asks of us: to seek to find God by attempting, always, to find the right course. We can, and will, disagree on this; we remain Jews, of course. But we must do so with an understanding that we are united in our desire to find the proper path, not to attack or destroy one another.
Our Torah portion this week, Vayikra, the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, highlights this in an interesting way. It begins with the Vayikra el Moshe, Vayidabeir Adonai Eilav mei’ohel mo’eid, which means, “He called to Moses, God spoke to him out of the tent of meeting…” This is an odd formulation, since first God calls to Moses, then God speaks to him. Why the double verbs here? Why the duplication?
Rashi, the great 12th century French commentator, says that, "Every time God spoke to Moses, he was welcomed by this calling which was a term of endearment. It was the same language used by the ministering angels for they too, 'called one to the other...' (Isaiah). And the voice went to Moses alone for Israel was unable to hear the sound... Everything God said to Moses for thirty-eight years was for the sake of [the whole people of] Israel.”
That is, the word Vayikra means God may have called to Moses intimately, as God would call a close relative, but the words were not intended solely for Moses. In fact, they were designed to unify the whole people of Israel. That was ultimately the purpose of the rituals of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the model for every temple ever constructed in Jewish history, including this one. The purpose is to bring all Jews together as one, with all their differences.
God's work was to try and keep Israel in order; similarly, Moses's calling was to promote the cause of Israel and not his personal relationship with the Holy One.
When God calls Moses to their meetings, God does so with love, saying that these people are your responsibility, but my tone is directed toward them through you. You, Moses, embody this generation in all they represent. I, God, speak to you for the primary purpose of building one nation from this disparate group.
God’s call here in Vayikra is not for the ego of one, but for the unity of the whole people. We are meant to be together, to support one another with respect. Differences of opinion are not a call to break up the sanctity of the sanctuary. They are an impetus to seek, and find, the greater underlying whole.
On this Shabbat of Vayikra, may we each hear God’s call in this way. And may all of our differences be only for the sake of heaven.