A few weeks ago I was at an event in town and a friend of mine came over. We began to discuss different goings-on in the Seattle community. My friend, let’s call him Jack, told me about a certain Jewish event that goes on every year. Tongue-in-cheek he said, “You can come, it’s ‘Ortho-friendly.’”
A few of us got a good laugh from the new terminology. But as I drove home I got to thinking about the word he used and the perception that went with it. Ortho-friendly generated a series of thoughts that led me to a new word: “Ortho-phobic:” the fear of “Orthodoxy” or fear of Orthodox Jews.
Could this really be true? I thought. And if it is, what can or should be done about it? It has certainly been something on my mind in one way or another for the two-and-a-half years my family has been back in the United States. But this word concretized it in my mind.
There is an astonishing discussion among the classical commentators on the Torah. They compare and contrast the following two episodes: First the Torah details the generation of the flood. Here was a people completely broken down morally who mistreated one another to an extreme. The other generation was known as the “Generation of dispersal.” These people tried to build a tower to “fight against God.”
If we were looking at it and deciding which group was worse, I assume most of us would argue that trying to fight against God should warrant a harsher response. Yet the Torah tells us that the generation of the flood was wiped out completely, whereas those who built the tower to fight God were only dispersed. The lesson: When there is unity among the people, even for a nefarious purpose, God can tolerate it, but disunity and strife has no place.
As a father, I’ve often contemplated this idea. Should my children — when my children? — band together as a unit to pull something over on us, I walk away with a certain sense of joy that they get along and are able to work together despite their differences. Sure, there may be consequences that need to be meted out for what they did, but there’s a parental satisfaction in their loyalty to one another. But should they fight, call each other names, or hurt one another, we cannot tolerate it. Period. Such behavior is unacceptable.
In describing the encampments on the way to Sinai, the Torah repeats the phrase, “and they….” Yet when the Jewish people are actually at the foot of the mountain, ready to receive the Torah, the Torah refers to the people in the singular. The commentaries point out: They were like one person at that time, a completely unified being. They were able to see the differences among them and love each other nonetheless. It is a powerful lesson indeed.
In the story of Purim we will be reading this month, Haman, the nefarious despot of the story, when trying to convince the King Achashverosh to allow him to kill the Jewish people, describes the Jews as a nation “spread out and dispersed.” Our commentators pick up on this expression and take it to mean something beyond the physical locale of where the Jews lived. Rather, Haman was saying, “now’s the time to get them for they are dispersed and distant from one another.” They lack the unity to band together and without that unity they crumble. And it took an Esther and Mordechai to piece (peace!) them back together.
We live in very turbulent times. The Jewish people have spiteful enemies around the world. There is hardly a day that goes by without a terrible act of anti-Semitism and hate being perpetrated somewhere on the globe against our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. There is no better time for us, the Jewish people, to band together strongly than there is today. There’s no greater a time than now to turn to our brothers and sisters, no matter how different looking we’ve become and to look past all differences and unite. Historically, Jews have lived in diverse cultures, picked up diverse habits from their countries, different modes of dress and even different styles of food. But there has been one front where the Jewish people have been unified throughout the generations: The study of our sacred Torah. This is a place where our diversity comes to greatly enrich our understanding of the depth and beauty of the Torah, and I would propose that there is no time like the present to engage in its richness like today. So grab a study-partner, maybe even a Jew you’ve only recently met, maybe even a Jew from a different stream of Judaism than you generally affiliate with, and study — unite and study!