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Divergent Convergence

Authentic achdus requires reaching out to the person one can’t stand


In a recent piece in these pages, Yisroel Besser wrote of the need for Jews to emerge from our current crisis with a new appreciation for the idea that diverse groups of Jews can rightfully follow divergent piskei halachah as well as different paths in avodas Hashem. As he put it, “If your rav and another rav disagree, great, follow your rav. There are always different opinions, but that doesn’t make you a bar plugta entitled to dismiss the other rav….”

I’d like to amplify that concept and its relevance to what we’ve gone through based on thoughts recently expressed by Rav Yonason David, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Pachad Yitzchok in Jerusalem. He noted the stunning contrast between what we are now experiencing and the period of several months leading up to our current predicament.

Beginning in early December and continuing clear through to February, there was a celebratory stretch unlike anything the Torah world has previously experienced. Each successive Siyum HaShas over the years has brought more celebrations in ever more numerous and larger venues, but this year’s Season of the Siyum was a thing apart, different not just in degree, but in kind. More Jews came together in greater numbers and more places around the world than anything we’d ever seen before, linking arms, dancing and singing in unison, and for all for one unitary purpose: to give honor to Torah and those who teach and learn it.

And then, as the last voices raised in songful exultation faded away, and with the memories of too many impassioned speeches to count still vividly in mind, we were blindsided by a phenomenon that was the mirror image of what we had enjoyed during those unusual few months. Intense togetherness was suddenly replaced by bleak, unending isolation. Two straight months of shuls and yeshivos filled with celebration and new and expanded shiurim became nearly three months of those same buildings sitting vacant and forlorn. Such a rapid and radical turnabout begs for some illumination.

What we need, said Rav David, is genuine achdus, the kind that can be so very hard to work toward and doesn’t necessarily make us feel so great at first. He cited the explanation given for why one of the nonkosher birds mentioned in the Torah carries the improbable name of chasidah, reflecting, according to Chazal (Chullin 63a), the fact that this bird, the stork, performs chesed with its friends.

A chassidic gadol asked why the Torah gave it that name, highlighting a seemingly positive attribute of a rather negative bird, one that remains forbidden to us. He explained that it’s because, as Chazal were careful to say, the chesed the chasidah does is limited to its own circle of friends, and that’s far from the Torah ideal of chesed, and achdus. In fact, it’s a perversion of both.

Authentic achdus requires reaching out to the person one can’t stand, whether for personal or policy reasons, perhaps even more so than to one’s friends. The Gemara rules that helping one’s enemy load a burden onto his animal takes precedence over helping a friend unload his own beast. Banishing an animal’s pain by relieving it of its heavy burden is surely a Torah value, but not equal in importance to taming the hateful beast within oneself.

Properly understood, achdus connotes unity, not uniformity. To the contrary, says Rav David, the one Yom Tov that entire segments of Klal Yisrael celebrate on two entirely different days — the Purims of the 14th and 15th of Adar — is the same one that was marked by an undifferentiated nationwide acceptance of the Torah anew. Indeed, the unusual phrase in Megillas Esther for that acceptance is “v’kibel haYehudim” (as opposed to “v’kiblu”), applying a singular verb to a plural subject, which highlights just how seamlessly the Jews united in their acceptance at that time.

That level of unified harmony is no contradiction to the possibility of Jews observing Purim on different days — it is precisely what makes it possible. Where there is baseline respect for the essential dignity of another Jew simply because he is a Jew, unity is not threatened by his following another path of observance or outlook provided it is grounded in Torah authority.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky similarly observed that the division of the Jewish People during its sojourn in the Midbar into separate encampments grouped around diverse flags could not take place until the Mishkan had been inaugurated. Once there was a central animating purpose for the nation as a whole, represented by the avodas Hashem taking place in the Mishkan at the nation’s center, the diversity of Klal Yisrael could safely be given expression without fear of fostering dangerous schisms.

The concept of achdus is a delicate one, requiring the ability to make subtle but important distinctions, and the risk of applying it too broadly to those undeserving of it can be just as problematic as wielding it too narrowly. But, as Rav David notes, we’re not discussing making common cause with apikorsim.

When the Torah mandates assisting one’s sonei to load his donkey, he continues, it refers to someone worthy of resentment for his violations of Torah law. Nevertheless, Tosafos (Pesachim 113b) states that righteous resentment invariably turns all too quickly into something very personal and thus, very prohibited. It is that impure hatred of the other that the Torah bids us to remove from our hearts by helping him in his time of need.

How much more so, says Rav David, must we reach beyond our comfort zones to reach out to people who aren’t malicious violators of Torah but simply Jews who happen to think differently from us, while being led by talmidei chachamim of stature. And we all know just how hard it can be to resist the urge to accept the general premise of tolerance for fellow Jews while continuing to single out some Jews for demonization.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 669. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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