Where Flowers Never Grow — Parasha BeHaalotecha

Our Parasha this week opens with G-d commanding Aaron to light the seven branched Menorah. The Menorah stands in the Ohel Moed, Tent of Meeting, in front of the Ark that holds the Ten Commandments.  Aaron is to light the Menorah daily, so that it burns from evening till morning.  Just as we light the Chanukah Menorah in a particular way, from left to right, so Aaron lights the wicks of the Menorah in a certain order.  He starts with the outermost branch on the right and lights toward the center, then moves from the outermost branch on the left and moves toward the center. This is to convey the idea of having a central point of unity toward which all Jewish people must direct their energies.  The idea of the unity of the Jewish people is also symbolized by the fact that the menorah was fashioned out of one single block of gold.

The idea of the unity of the Jewish people was on my mind this week when I learned that the plan to build an egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem is once again on hold. In January the Israeli government announced that a permanent government supervised plaza would be built in the area of Robinson’s Arch on which non-Orthodox prayer would be allowed.  However, this week ultra-Orthodox worshipers, led by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, erected a mehitza at the egalitarian section of the wall to separate men and women in prayer.  When Reform and Conservative Jews held a mincha service outside the formal prayer area of the Western Wall, as a form of protest, Ultra-Orthodox counter-demonstrators threw bottles, sang loudly and yelled “You are not Jews” in order to drown them out. Speaking after the service, Chief Rabbi Amar said a mixed-gender plaza constituted an “unforgivable wrong” that would “weaken Jerusalem” and the Jewish people.

Or take the incident that I read about just yesterday. A woman applied for a marriage license in Pehtah Tikvah in Israel. She and her fiancé were refused the license because her conversion to Judaism in the United States was judged to be invalid. The reason given was that the rabbi who had overseen the conversion in the USA was not on the list of Orthodox rabbis approved by the Israeli Rabbinate to perform conversions. This in itself would not be newsworthy except for the fact that the rabbi with whom this woman studied is one of the most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis in America, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. In fact, Donald Trump’s daughter studied with Rabbi Lookstein, and she converted to Judaism under his auspices. This is just the latest salvo in a running dispute between Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel and Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States over the wielding of rabbinic authority.

Incidents like this naturally lead one to wonder, “In what ways are the Jewish people united?” If this is unity, what does “division” look like?

When it comes to internal matters of religious practice and personal status, we Jews are sadly divided. Yet when it comes to a shared history, a shared destiny, and to a sense of responsibility toward one another there is indeed a unity of understanding and of purpose. Anti-Semites, after all, never have, and never will, make distinctions among Jews as to who is secular or religious, Reform or Orthodox.  Just as important, we share the Torah, our sacred book and Hebrew, the sacred language in which it is written. Hebrew is the language of our prayer. In all of these things, we are united.

The power of Torah, and the power of Hebrew language in which it is written, unites us despite our many differences. This is why Jews who may not be able to pray together can always study together. This can be seen in the work of an Israeli organization called Kesher Yehudi, or “Jewish Connections”. The organization was founded in the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of three yeshiva students — Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, Eyal Yifrah, 19, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 — by Hamas in June, 2014. The founders of Jewish Connections wanted to find ways of sustaining the sense of unity that Israelis experienced during the eighteen day search for the teen agers.   Kesher Yehudi pairs up religious and secular Israelis to study Torah together on a weekly basis. The program is not for everybody. The religious participant is told, “If you view your participation only as an act of hessed  –charity — for an ignorant secular Jew, this is not the program for you. If you do not believe that every time two Jews meet each has something to offer the other and that both can gain and grow from the relationship, this is not the program for you.”

By Studying Torah together, and learning from one another, Israelis from all walks of life form life-long friendships that bridge the gap of the secular-religious divide. One participant said, “It is fun to rediscover each time we study that the Torah is the precious possession of every Jew. And it does not matter where you are coming from; the Torah is the glue holding us together.”

Ultimately, both passionate differences, and quiet meeting of the minds, in their own way, represent Jewish unity. We argue passionately about Jewish practice because Judaism really matters to us. Wherever we are on the Jewish spectrum, committed Jews are in agreement that Judaism is serious business. Judaism is a big deal. It is worth fighting over what Judaism looks like. These disagreements are, as it says in Pirke Avot “Disputes for the sake of Heaven” which have enduring value. At the same time, we must bring to our conversations, whether they are about religion, or politics or personal conflicts, a sense of love, and even a sense of doubt. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai puts it this way, “From the place that we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.” The sense of certainty and self-righteousness that we often bring to our disagreements provide but sterile ground for productive growth and progress.

The menorah is fashioned out of one block of gold, but it has separate and distinct points of light. To me this teaches us that we all have our own rays of light, our own unique and different perspectives, to bring to the conversation. Unity comes about, perhaps, not when we all agree, but when we see all sides of a dispute and recognize the value of different positions.

Shabbat Shalom