On Friday, September 25, The Jerusalem Post published an interview with Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder outlined four major challenges facing the Jewish people: intensifying antisemitism, division among Jews, division between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel, and young Jews abandoning Judaism. In my view, based on everything that I have learned from my teachers, all of these issues stem from one and only problem: We don’t know our task as Jews. We strive to be like all other nations but we aren’t, just as the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Maftir Yonah (reading the Book of Jonah) tells us. As long as we don’t understand and embrace our vocation, the issues Lauder specified will not only remain, but will escalate into another calamity in the annals of our people.
The Book of Jonah tells the story of Prophet Jonah, who would not heed God’s instruction to tell the gentile people of Nineveh that they must reform their ways or He will destroy them. Jonah tries to avoid his mission by fleeing in a ship but God stirs up a storm, Jonah is forced to confess that he is the cause of it, and the gentile sailors have no choice but to throw him overboard to calm the sea. Jonah is saved by a fish that swallows him, brings him safely ashore, and Jonah finally goes to Nineveh, tells them God’s words, and saves the city from destruction.
Jonah’s story is an allegory on the task of the Jewish people. Since our inception, we have been tasked with bringing light to the world, to be “a light unto nations.” But we never really understood what that task meant. Our nation is not an offshoot of a certain family or clan. We formed our peoplehood through ideological affinity to Abraham’s idea of compassion and care for all people, of unity of hearts above all the differences. This ideology engendered some of the most iconic and compassionate mottos in the history of humankind, such as “Hate stirs strife, and love will cover all crimes” (Prov. 12:10), “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), and “What you hate, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary” (Shabbat 31a).
Even in Egypt, the people of Israel were united and thrived under Joseph’s leadership. After Joseph’s death, the people disintegrated and began to assimilate. When Pharaoh turned against the Hebrews, Moses took them out. He made them into a nation but only after they united “as one man with one heart.”
Immediately following the inauguration of their nationhood, the Israelites (who were later known as “Jews”) were instructed to be “a light unto nations,” to bring the unity they had achieved at the foot of Mt. Sinai to the rest of the world. This has been our vocation since our first day as a nation, and it is still the very reason that our nation still exists. Long after all the empires that have tried to vanquish us have perished, we are here, but it is only so as to bring the light of unity to a hate filled world.
This vocation is the reason why to this day, when hatred and disunity increase to the point of violence, we Jews are blamed for it. The vocation we were given roughly 3,500 years ago is as valid now as it was then, and until we carry it out, we will stay the world’s pariahs.
As long as we shun our mission, we will keep assimilating. We will remain divided amongst each other, and the nations’ hatred toward us will only increase. There is no hope to abate any of the issues Lauder pointed out unless we first acknowledge that we must unite in order to bring unity to the world, and that this is our vocation as Jews. This is the education that we must bring to our people. This awareness and active work toward realizing it is also what makes one Jewish.
Our sages have made countless statements regarding the importance of unity for the people of Israel and how it pertains to the rest of the world. Here are some of the myriad examples: Midrash Rabbah writes, “My sons, be full of mercy over one another, and the Lord will be full of mercy over you.” Also, in Midrash Rabbah, “Great is peace, and hated is division.” The book Avot de Rabbi Natan states, “One should not say, ‘Love the wise and hate the disciples; love the disciples and hate the uneducated.’ Rather, ‘Love everyone.’” But we should not unite for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, or as the great Rav Kook put it, “In Israel lies the secret to the unity of the world” (Orot Kodesh, Vol. 2).
With these words, I wish my fellow Jews, and all the people of the world, that we may unite above our divisions, and thereby heal ourselves in body, mind, and spirit.
Gmar Hatima Tova
Posted on Facebook