A KEY FOR ELUL
Only if we are united will we be worthy of crowning the King
Elul is here, and each of us is looking for some means of putting ourselves on an upward trajectory as we approach the Yamim Noraim. By now, most of us have learned from experience that the requisite change must be something relatively small in degree of difficulty in relation to our current spiritual level — and therefore likely to be acted upon. At the same time, it must be of sufficient significance to hold out the possibility of unlocking other changes in its wake.
I think I found one such key in a comment of the Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 46). There the Magen Avraham writes in the name of the Arizal that prior to every tefillah, a person should take upon himself the positive mitzvah of "v'ahavta lerei'acha kamocha — love your friend as yourself," and undertake to love every fellow Jew as himself.
Tefillah is a particularly opportune time to accept upon oneself the positive mitzvah of loving one's fellow Jews. Davka in tefillah are negative thoughts about others prone to arise. I once heard Rav Reuven Leuchter define sinas chinam — the causeless hatred for which we remain in galus — in terms of its opposite ahavas chinam, causeless love.
The latter is the favorable judgment at which we arrive every time we look in the mirror. We have lots of negative information about the fellow in the mirror, and yet our overall judgment is usually a favorable one. For one and only one reason: that fellow is me. Accordingly, sinas chinam is any negative judgment that one forms about another because he is not me.
In davening, particularly if our eyes tend to wander, we are keenly aware of others' differences from us, and are perhaps irritated by those differences. This one davens too fast, another too slowly; this one is too emotive and moves about too emphatically for our taste, another betrays no emotion. Whatever it is, the primary drawback is that he doesn't daven as I do.
The Magen Avraham is teaching us, inter alia, that every time such a negative judgment pops into our head, no matter how fleetingly, we should strive to replace it with a positive thought instead. If, for instance, we notice someone arriving late for davening (also relevant for anyone who has ever seen me arrive late), try to replace the negative impression with a more favorable reading of the situation — e.g., how amazing it is that so-and-so, despite all the pressures with which he is dealing, still manages to make it to every davening.
The Magen Avraham's injunction, however, is not merely a corrective to negative thoughts in davening. It goes to the essence of tefillah. The Beis HaLevi, in parshas Vayeishev, explicates a verse in Yeshayahu (57:13), according to the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah). The verse begins, "B'zaakeich yatziluch kibutzayich — When you cry out, let your cohorts rescue you..." The Midrash learns that zaakeich is not just that language of calling out, as in tefillah, but also the language of gathering together.
In warfare, writes the Beis HaLevi, the greater the numbers, the better the chances of victory, for the more numerous forces can attack the enemy at many points. But in tefillah, unity of purpose is far more important than numbers. For Yisrael, the gathering together of Yaakov and his sons brought about the salvation from Eisav. The unity of purpose of Yaakov and his 12 sons prevailed over Eisav and the 400 men with him, for the latter were nothing more than a large aggregate, but without any commonality of purpose.
And when is that unity of purpose most manifest for Yaakov and his descendants? In prayer — the quintessential weapon of Yaakov. And the greater the love between children of Yaakov, the more effective their prayer, and the greater their ability to dissipate Eisav and his followers.
THAT MESSAGE OF JEWISH UNITY also holds the key to our judgment during the Yamim Noraim. Every year in Elul, a yellow poster hung in the Talmud Torah of Kelm. On it was inscribed the principle message that the Alter of Kelm wished to instill as Rosh Hashanah approached:
"All the Rosh Hashanah prayers are designed to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven, and we, for our part, are called upon to crown the L-rd as King of Kings. With what shall we crown Him? With love for others and charitable acts, as Moshe said in his parting blessing: 'There will be a King in Yeshurun when the leaders of the people gather together, with the tribes of Israel as one.' "
Only if we are united and act out of a sense of unity and love for one another will we be worthy of crowning the King.
Fortunately, the Jewish People possess a unique potential for unity, writes the Beis HaLevi. When Hashem divided the nations into seventy, he assigned to each its own guardian angel. But we, the Jewish People, fell uniquely under His direct Providence. And because we are the outgrowth of the one true unity, Hashem, we too are imbued with a capacity for achdus.
Unfortunately, that capacity has never been fully realized since Matan Torah. And to the extent that we are not fulfilling that potential, our connection to Hashem is diminished, and so too our ability to fulfill our mission of revealing Hashem's unity to the world. The long exile in which we linger, on account of sinas chinam, constitutes a great chillul Hashem, an emptying of the world of Hashem's Glory.
Developing our own ahavas Yisrael, with frequent reminders every time we start to daven, is the precondition for realizing our ultimate national mission of revealing Hashem's Glory to the entire world and crowning Him as King on Rosh Hashanah.
Toward a Unified Theory of Anti-Semitism
We have been writing a lot about the fact of anti-Semitism in recent weeks, but little about the whys. In Chazal's view, hatred of Jews appears baked into the cosmos: Eisav hates Yaakov is a foundational principle, they say. And that hatred was activated by the giving of the Torah. Sinai, Chazal inform us, is from the language of hatred, for from the moment the Torah was given, so did hatred for its bearers come into the world.
The best single explication of that hatred is that offered by the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain and quoted by historian Robert Wistrich in his A Lethal Obsession: "Israel... is to be found at the very heart of the world's structure, stimulating it, exasperating it, moving it. Like an alien body, like an activating ferment injected into the mass, it gives the world no peace.... [A]s long as the world has not G-d, it stimulates the movement of history.... It is the vocation of Israel that the world hates." In short, the world recognizes — even if most contemporary Jews do not — that the Jewish People have been chosen to bring awareness of G-d to the world.
But even if there exists an underlying explanation for anti-Semitism, it remains the most protean of hatreds, always taking on new forms. And each outbreak has its own immediate causes: plague, military defeat, widespread economic dislocation.
The in-vogue concept of "intersectionality" bids us to view the world in terms of systems of oppression, and argues that any differential in outcomes between different groups (except starting positions in the NBA) can be explained by systemic racism or some other form of oppression.
The Jews, however, represent a pircha (difficulty) for all such explanations. Our millennia-long history of discrimination, confinement to ghettos, pogroms, mass extermination, and exile and dispersion is unparalleled. Nor is that ancient history. As a professor friend of mine remarked recently, "My grandfather was also a slave in German work camps."
Yet Jews have succeeded disproportionately in every society in which they have been given the opportunity to do so, despite their long history of oppression. A history of ppression is therefore not a complete explanation of every inequality in outcomes among various groups. And if someone will counter, "But Jews are still white" (or in the new terminology, "white adjacent"), we can point to the similar disproportionate success of Asian immigrants, Indian immigrants, and black immigrants from several African countries. Racism too is not a sufficient explanation.
And just as jealousy at success in the face of oppression and discrimination explains much of invective poured on Jews by BLM and its fellow travelers, so does embarrassment in the face of Israel's remarkable success over little more than seven decades help explain the hatred of its neighbors.
Blessed with none of the wealth of natural resources of the oil states — at least until recently, faced with the economic burden of absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, most from undeveloped countries who would be classified as "people of color" by today's racial taxidermists, and forced to defend itself from ongoing attack from the date of its birth — Israel has nevertheless managed to become a world leader in high-tech, in desalinization, in medical research, and in multiple scientific fields, and the only functioning democracy in the Middle East.
That success in the face of so many challenges must inevitably serve as implicit rebuke to its more populous neighbors. The sting of that implicit rebuke can be found in yet another of those recent academic condemnations of Israel on the grounds of its practice of "cultural hierarchism."
No, the Jews did not set out to prove their cultural superiority. They sought to build a flourishing life for themselves and their children. And to a remarkable degree, they have.