Succot: Time to act like family

The time has come for all of us to work on the most basic of Jewish commandments: loving other Jews; 'We are all 1 unit, parts of 1 body.'

By HAIM AMSALEM
October 12, 2011 04:27
Right and left wing activists clash

Right and left wing activists clash R 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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The High Holy Days have passed, and Succot has arrived. Jews all over the world are spending more time than usual in synagogues and temples while also expending significant energy on introspection and self-improvement. When we deal with the issue of trying to be better people, we tend to focus on actions we can take to improve ourselves. We decide to give more charity, to pray more often, to visit the sick more regularly, etc. I would like to suggest that there is something much more fundamental which all of us must seek to address during these meaningful days, despite its great difficulty.

The time has come for all of us to work on the most basic of Jewish commandments: loving other Jews. Of course, we have a responsibility to love all of God’s creations, Jew or non-Jew. However, before we aim for loving all of mankind, we should work on loving those closest to us.

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Maimonides teaches, “It is incumbent upon all Jews to love every other Jew as he loves his own body... therefore, one must speak the praises of fellow Jews” and care for them the way we care for ourselves. Hillel taught that the entire Torah merely helps us fulfill this concept and Rabbi Akiva called it “a great rule in the Torah.”

A quick glance at a prayer book may reveal a short prayer in the front, preceding all others, stating: “I accept upon myself the commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself and I do love each and every one of the children Israel as my own soul and person, and I hence invite my mouth to praise the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He.”

The very fact that we feel the need to reaffirm this love before engaging in prayer demonstrates the supremacy of this value in Jewish thought.

A STUDENT once asked the Rebbe of Nikolsburg how he could possibly love others as much as he loved himself.

After all, the student explained, other people often upset him and he could not control the ensuing feelings of anger and resentment. The rabbi asked the student if he ever hurt himself accidentally. When the student answered in the affirmative, the rabbi asked him if he reacted by hitting his hand or whatever part of his body caused the harm. The student responded that of course he would never punish another part of his own body and cause himself even more pain. That, explained the rabbi, is how we are supposed to view fellow Jews. We are all one unit and parts of one body.

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Getting angry at another Jew only generates more pain for us, all the more so if we cause actual harm to each other.

I believe that the lack of love among Jews is the greatest problem facing the State of Israel today and creates the greatest challenge for its leadership. We live in a country where everyone is so passionate about political and religious ideologies that we forget that we are part of the same family. Hatred among different group of Jews has run so deep that many on both sides of the spectrum have no problem articulating that they hope the members of certain political or religious (or non-religious) groups would simply disappear! How can we ever achieve peace with or victory over our external enemies if we still view fellow Jews as our enemies from within? The introductory prayers we recited on Kol Nidre night must remain in our ears and should serve to jolt us back to reality on a regular basis. Jews from every stripe and walk of life declared that “we permit ourselves to pray with the sinners.” To some, the “sinners” refers to the secular. For others, to the ultra-Orthodox.

Some define “sinners” as the hilltop youth. Others, as members of Peace Now. The list goes on and on. But in order to be successful in our Yom Kippur service the wise authors of our liturgy knew that we must put all those differences of opinion aside and at least allow the “sinners” through the door to join us for prayers.

DISAGREEMENTS ARE OK. In fact, the passions and deeply held opinions which fuel our national debates are largely responsible for our survival and success as a people. But something else has also led to our great success and supernatural survival.

Through all we have been through over the past 2,000 years, our persecutors have never distinguished between different types of Jews. No Nazi ever said, “he’s not religious, let’s leave him alone.” No Crusader ever thought, “he looks like the religious type, we only want the more secular.” None of our current enemies aim missiles specifically at right- or left-wingers. Those who hate us remind us that we are one people and one family and that love, as heavily covered and professionally camouflaged as it may be, is the reason we’re still here despite all we have been through as a nation.

Succot provides us with the opportunity to remind ourselves of this concept in a very tangible way. Tradition teaches that the four species – the etrog, the date palm, the myrtle and willow branches – represent four types of Jews with different levels of religious observance.

We take these four species together as one unit in the service of God, thereby reminding us that regardless of our personal and private level of observance, we must act as one nation and focus on that which unites us instead of that which divides us.

As we try to put the introspection and self-improvement of Yom Kippur 5772 into practice during the festive days of Succot, I would like to suggest that we put aside the loud and externally obvious changes which so often mark our desire to be better people and focus instead on the most basic transformation – loving one another. The debates regarding peace with the Palestinians and religion and state will no doubt continue to rage for decades to come. Let’s make sure that along the way, we maintain some perspective by viewing each other as family and, at the very least, letting the “sinners” through the door.

The author is a Knesset member and the founder of the Am Shalem movement.

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