We Belong Together

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

Few days in the year emphasize Jewish unity like this Shabbat, the eighth day of Pesach, on this particular year. Here are the lofty, theoretical, 30,000 foot high reasons:

This Jewish year, 5776, is a year that follows a Sh’mitah year, which completes a seven-year cycle. Biblically, the year following a Sh’mitah year has a special mitzvah known as the mitzvah of Hakhel. Hakhel involved all Jewish men, women and children making a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple during the holiday of Sukkot, where they would gather together, and listen to the king read from the Torah. It was the only time in seven years in which the entire Jewish nation would come together, and the sense of unity was powerful. Because of that power, in more recent years, it has been customary during a Hakhel year for Jews to seek opportunities to gather together — not only on Sukkot, but during the rest of the year as well. As noted earlier, this year is a Hakhel year.

This Shabbat, the eighth day of Pesach, particularly emphasizes Jewish unity. Typically, Jews in Israel celebrate only seven days of Pesach, whereas Jews outside of Israel celebrate eight days of Pesach. Thus, while Jews outside of Israel are observing their final day of the holiday, still eating Matzah and refraining from eating Chametz, Israeli Jews have repurchased their Chametz, and are well into enjoying their pizza and pita. This year however, since the eighth day of Pesach is on Shabbat, Israeli Jews will not be eating Chametz until Sunday, as they will not have any break between Pesach and Shabbat in which to repurchase or to bake their Chametz. Thus, this year, everyone will be effectively celebrating Pesach on the eight day — Israeli and non-Israeli Jews alike.

The portion of Torah that non-Israeli Jews read this Shabbat is from Deuteronomy (Chapter 14-16), in the section beginning with our obligation to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, including the Levite (who did not inherit land among the other tribes), the stranger, the orphan and the widow. It then proceeds with our obligation to support a fellow in need, and to provide for the well-being of an indentured servant. The portion emphasizes each of us is no more than a steward for the gifts that G-d gives us for the benefit of those around us who are in need, and that we have the responsibility to look out for each other. This, too, emphasizes our unity and responsibility for one another.

Finally, this Shabbat is the eighth day of Pesach, and this year is the eighth year — the year following the seven-year Sh’mitah cycle. Kabbalistically, the number eight represents transcendence. The number seven stands for the natural cycle: seven days in the week, seven levels of heaven, seven sefirot and emotional attributes. Eight, on the other hand, breaks the natural cycle. Instead of returning to number one to start the cycle anew, it goes beyond, transcending the natural order.

In his book the Tanya, R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that only way for us to truly unite and love one another is to transcend the distinctions and differences that are caused by our natural, corporeal existence; and to focus, rather, on our souls, which are all from the same source, and which are equal in their spiritual potency. When we achieve that perspective, we realize that we cannot possibly fail to love one another, as the differences that loom so large in our mind are insignificant; and our spiritual similarities, to which we typically give short thrift, are so fundamental that to reject one another is like rejecting a part of our own body.

On a practical level, I was recently troubled when I read of a Pesach seder advertised as one at which a particular sub-culture of Jewry could “finally feel welcome.” My immediate thought was: “Why would there be a seder at which they would not feel welcome?”

Each of us comes with our own set of experiences, our own weaknesses, our own strengths, our own identities, our own skeletons. Sometimes we confuse weaknesses for strength, and skeletons for identities. No matter. It’s what we do, for better or for worse. We each have our own idiosyncratic way of coping with a complicated world.

We respond to various moral codes and teachings, traditions imparted by our parents, grandparents, or Sunday school. As Jews, these moral codes tend to be oriented around the Torah.

Torah has a great many commandments, and is quite strict about the observance of its instructions. However, the commandments are things that we do, or fail to do. Our observance (or transgression) of the mitzvot does not make or break who we are. Our identity as Jews, and as brothers and sisters, does not depend upon our perfect adherence to the Torah. Our lifestyle choices — as poor as they may sometimes be — in no way disqualify us from our full membership in the Jewish nation, and in no way compromise the value of our contribution to our collective mission.

That is not to say that our behavior is not important; of course it is. Indeed, we should aspire to bring our actions into harmony with the Torah and with the loftiness of our soul. Any judgments or criticism must be reserved for behavior. If I have acted in a way that disappoints legitimate expectations of me, then I have opened my behavior to criticism, and must work to bring it into alignment with my moral code, my soul, and my Divine mission. You may not endorse certain aspects of my behavior, just as I may not endorse certain aspects of yours. But it begins and ends with behavior, and does not spill over into our identity. No Jew should ever have cause to feel as though he or she does not fully belong with the rest of his or her Jewish family.

At the Pesach seder we speak of four sons. Or daughters. Or whatever. The point is, the Torah recognizes that, within the same family, we may have many radically-different siblings, each of whom may have an entirely different approach to Torah and Judaism. And there may be a different path for each child to follow in finding his or her unique contribution to the world and our collective destiny. But we are still all of the same family, and sitting at the same seder. Even the wicked one, whose teeth get blunted, remains at the table. A seder at which anyone doesn’t belong is a seder at which no one belongs, because we all belong at the Pesach seder, and indeed — the same Pesach seder. As the Talmud teaches (Kiddushin, 42a), it would be appropriate for the entire Jewish nation may join in a single Pesach offering.

Jewish unity is not only more powerful than divisiveness, it is a more accurate reflection of our inherent commonality. We belong together.