Coming Together for the Sake of Heaven by Eve Levy
“That is not the correct way to understand it!” exclaimed the one Talmudic scholar. “If you think of it clearly, this is how G-d wants us to pray to Him!”
“Well, I disagree,” retorted his colleague. “This is how prayer is meant to be expressed!”
The classic picture of Talmudic students arguing out an idea of Torah thought happens in every yeshiva. In fact, if you think about it, every rabbi will have a number of these debates with his congregants.
Passion. Furry. Hurt. Opinions. Debate. You know the old joke: Two Jews, three opinions.
What is it that make us so opinionated? It must be in our Jewish DNA or something. Yep, it actually is. From the first Jews and continuing throughout the generations Jews have been called an am kashe oref (a thick-necked nation, a stubborn people). Maybe this whispers the miraculous reason for our survival. Just maybe our biggest flaw is our greatest asset.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, our forefather Jacob leaves his parents home to head to Charan to find his future bride. On the way, he stops to spend the night in a very precious place, Temple Mount. Jacob is exhausted and lies down to rest on the ground. He places stones around his head to protect him from wild animals. Our sages tell us there were 12 of these stones, which represented the 12 tribes, what was to become the Jewish nation. That night Jacob has a prophetic dream in which God promises to look after him and enable Jacob to return to the land of Israel. When Jacob wakes up, he dedicates the stone that was around his neck as a altar, libating it with oil in thanks for the promise.
Wait, but didn’t he go to sleep with 12 stones around his head? What happened to the rest of the stones? Rashi quotes the Midrash, which tells us that during the night the stones quarrelled for the privilege of supporting the head of the righteous one. G-d therefore took all 12 and turned them into one.
I read my kids this Parsha story and they just loved it! What a cool story of many rocks miraculously becoming one, uniting for good.
In Judaism there are so many different types and stripes and walks of life. In Israel the differences are so much more apparent and expressed. Even though I lived in Jerusalem for 12 years, I still don’t think I really was able to comprehend the slight differences between the distinct forms of Judaism. Each sect had slightly different customs and dress. There are different names for each Jewish sect: Chasidish, Chiloni, Modern Orthodox, Secular, Yeshivish, Dati Leumi, Litvish, Reform, Conservative, Chardal, Mizrachi, Chozer Bishe’lah, Sefardi, Ashkenazi, just to name a few.
These terms are merely labels separating us into our little, neat, labelled boxes. I was never comfortable with all the labeling. I grew up as a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. Stereotyping a Jew was unheard of. What mattered most to my grandparents was rebuilding the Jewish nation.
I never felt that I myself fit into any particular box. I was born into a non-practicing Ashkanazi family in Canada and I “intermarried” my Sefardi husband from South Africa, son and grandson of a line of prominent rabbis going back generations. People have asked me, “What are you Eve? Are you Chabad? Are you Chasidish? Are you Mizrachi?” I simply answer “No, I am just Jewish, I serve G-d.”
There is so much that can divide Jews. Unfortunately we fall prey to the alienating desire to put people in boxes based on the movement with which they are associated.
Do you think G-d cares how we label ourselves or others? G-d can read us without our labels. What G-d cares about most is our dedication to Him and our selflessness toward others. G-d wants to feel our connection to Him; He wants to see what’s in our hearts!
When we are passionate about Judaism, even if we are arguing and quarrelling about the correct way to be dedicated towards Him, I imagine it still must sound beautiful to G-d. There is not one way but many ways to understanding the Torah, as it is written in the Talmud, Shivim Panim L’Torah (there are 70 facets ‒ and ways of understanding ‒ the Torah).
The story is told that the great Maggid (storyteller) of Mezeritch (Dov Ber ben Avraham, died 1772) was visiting a small town in Poland. There were a number of great Torah scholars in that city who were students of the holy Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, Lithuania, 1720-97). The Gaon opposed many practices of the Hasidic world, and these scholars decided they would go to protest the Maggid of Mezeritch. One of them, Reb Gershon, decided that he didn’t want to get involved in politics and, rather than protest, would devote his evening to studying Torah.
That night, Reb Gershon was not able to sleep. He felt perhaps it was his spiritual responsibility to go and protest the Maggid of Mezeritch. Early the next morning he got up, filled his pockets with pebbles to throw at the holy Maggid. When Reb Gershon got to the inn where the Maggid was staying, he found the Maggid in the process of taking off his tefillin. Everyone knows that when one sees such a holy person busy doing a holy act, one can’t throw pebbles at him. So Reb Gershon turned around, left the Inn and emptied his pockets.
The Maggid followed Reb Gershon outside. He bent down, picked up the stones and kissed each one of them. The holy Maggid of Mezeritch exclaimed, “These stones were collected solely for the sake of Heaven and therefore are inherently holy. Hashem loves us when our differences are driven solely for the intent of Heaven.”
We still have a long way to go and many bridges to build within the Jewish world, but if we can just find ways to show mutual respect and love for our each other and yet keep our passion for the way we serve G-d, I think G-d will take those passions and unite them in one powerful song.
City Leader, Portland Kollel