It was Friday morning and I was preparing to board a flight from New York to Detroit. It was a flight like many others, but for me it was special because though I was alone that morning, I was surrounded by family. The flight was filled with Jews.
I was surprised when I approached the gate area and found it filled with couples, parents, children and grandparents traveling to Detroit for Shabbat. In one corner young men were praying in Talit and Teffilin (shawl and phylacteries). In another, a grandparent was on the phone with his family sharing a thought on the Torah portion of the week. I felt for all the world like I was at home. The discussions around me, many of which I joined, were of Torah, prayer and community.
It was a regular morning in a bustling airport, but in our little corner, it was Erev Shabbat. Men and women flying home, wrapping up their week, adjusting their mindset and preparing for holiness.
When we arrived to Detroit, fellow travelers offered to drive me to where I was going. When I explained that I had my own car, but required directions, they went out of their way to ensure that I knew my way. I didn’t know their name or even where they lived, but I had a place in their car and yes, in their hearts. Total strangers a moment earlier, brothers and sisters at the airport.
We are a unique people. When we run into each other in surprising places we feel an immediate kinship. To us, it feels completely normal. There is nothing out of the ordinary in this sharing of friendship and love. In such settings external differences melt away. Sephardi or Ashkenazi, Litvish or Chassidic, modern orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, make nary a difference. They pale in light of our common denominator.
When we meet in a Jewish neighborhood we gravitate to our own. Modern Orthodox mingle with Modern Orthodox. Secular Zionists are drawn to Secular Zionists and sophisticated agnostics hang with sophisticated agnostics. Yet, at the airport, voila. Complete strangers become tight as brothers. We merge not only socially, but emotionally, intellectually and culturally.
What is it about being among others that brings our own identity into sharp relief?
I believe that becoming acutely aware of the larger difference between us and the wider population binds us to each other and causes our smaller differences to fade.
Human nature never changes. What is true today was true thousands of years ago. In the Torah we read of the terrible rift between Joseph and his brothers. It was more than sibling rivalry, their discord led to the sale of Joseph into slavery. Yet, when Joseph and his brothers reunited in Egypt they became a loving family. Even before they embarked for Egypt they had regretted the sale of their brother and determined to repurchase his freedom at any cost.
Surely this was a matter of time healing old wounds, but if that were all this was, their time together in Egypt would have resulted in renewed rifts notwithstanding Joseph’s powerful position. That new rifts never materialized tells us that even a family filled with discord at home, coalesces among others.
That was precisely the sentiment I sensed at the airport. Our closeness wasn’t just the product of our common difference with the larger population in the airport. We actually felt a kinship and common identity. There was a sense of family and siblinghood. We chatted easily about matters that fellow travelers don’t usually discuss. We were on a first-name basis without even knowing each other’s name.
What can we learn from the fact that complete strangers on the street or neighborhood store become tight like brothers when they meet in foreign places?
I think the obvious answer is that there is more that binds us than what divides us. We rarely focus on this truth because we are often blinded by the small differences between us. That I wear my hat brim down and you wear your brim up, that I wear a white kippa and you wear a black kpipa is incredibly insignificant. That I follow this custom and you follow another, that I follow this train of thought and you follow another is a puny difference. We share a common soul. We were both there at Sinai.
It is human nature to accentuate our differences and gravitate to the largest one. In the airport it was the one between us and the majority of travelers. In the community they are the tiny distinctions in accent, dress and behavior. But just because this is human nature doesn’t mean we need to accept it. We are better than that. We are more than just human. We can and ought to fight against this trait and focus more often on our common bonds.
In truth, this trait shouldn’t be quashed completely because it is critical to the building of identity. Without it we would never gravitate to our own kind or creed. It drives us to take pride in and comfort from what we believe in and feel is right. It helps us to establish who we are and where we belong. But we shouldn’t give this trait free reign because it has the power to imprison us. The very trait that drives us to build our own enclave, drives us to isolate ourselves by keeping others at bay.
Another way of putting it, this trait helps us to establish our personal unit, but prevents us from fostering unity. Unity occurs when units coalesce. Once our unit has been established, it is incumbent on us to interface with other units and forge a comm-unity. The trait that is vital for our unit is dangerous to our unity. If this trait isn’t constrained, we sacrifice our unity for the sake of our units.
Left unchecked, this trait leads religious men to throw rocks at fellow Jews. It leads grown men to terrorize little girls on their way to school. It leads respected media figures to demonize entire communities unfairly. Such insular focus leads to intolerance, racism and in extreme cases genocide.
The Nazis wouldn’t have succeeded had Hitler not inculcated the German youth with pride in their heritage. But pride turned to racism, then disgust with everything different to them and finally, dehumanization. The Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if the Nazis were less insular in their thinking. We of all people should have learned that lesson.
We are very good about teaching it to others. We travel the world and teach tolerance and acceptance. Yet, too often, we are prejudiced and bigoted among ourselves. We discriminate against our very own. When we met in the airport the other day, we knew down to our marrow that we belonged to each other. It is a lesson worth remembering. It is a lesson worth practicing. It is a lesson worth living.
(The focus of this essay is unity among Jews though it also applies to our relations with other nations. Though naturally, the further the units are from each other, the weaker the kinship will, can and should be.)
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]