Think Again: Viewing one another with a good eye

Rachel Fraenkel’s theme of Jewish unity and concern for one another also happens to be one of the principal themes of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot.

Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel (L-R). (photo credit: REUTERS)
Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel (L-R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Just before Rosh Hashana, Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one the three murdered yeshiva students, issued a video message through to the entire Jewish people.
She recounted very briefly the torture of the 18 days of searching for her son and Eyal Yifrah and Gil-Ad Shaer: The parents knew almost from the beginning that their sons had almost certainly been murdered, yet they maintained stoic countenances, filled with faith, throughout. Their nobility awed the entire nation.
Her message, however, was not about what the parents suffered or the irreparable hole in their hearts.
Rather, she focused on those “amazing hours” of which it was said, “We went out searching for the boys and we discovered ourselves.” She likened those days to a flash of lightning on a dark and gloomy night that illuminates forward: “We had days and days of lightning...
[We] saw about ourselves that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”
Fraenkel knows that it is not all “kumbaya” moments ahead of us, that we will return to old patterns – indeed, we already have. Yet, she insists, the closeness of what Jews around the world felt in those 18 days and the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge was no illusion, and urges each of us to do something tangible to preserve those feelings of caring intensely for one another.
FRAENKEL’S THEME of Jewish unity and concern for one another also happens to be one of the principal themes of the three holidays in the cycle of repentance – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot – in which we currently find ourselves.
On Rosh Hashana, we celebrate the creation of the world, which came about only because of God’s desire to give to a being outside of Himself. And we emulate His hessed by inviting friends and guests to join us in festive meals.
The goal of Rosh Hashana is to crown God as King.
Without a nation there can be no king, our Sages tell us. And without a sense of common purpose and being joined together in some fundamental fashion, there is no nation, only a motley crew of individuals.
In recognition of this fact, there hung in the Talmud Torah throughout Elul a yellowing sign from the days of the Alter, proclaiming: “All the Rosh Hashana prayers are designed to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven, and we, for our part, are called upon to crown the Lord as King of Kings. With what shall we crown Him? With love for others and charitable acts, as Moses said in his parting blessing: ‘There will be a King in Jeshurun when the leaders of the people gather together, with the tribes of Israel as one.’” During the Ten Days of Repentance, which culminate with Yom Kippur, the principal means of arousing God’s mercy is through the recitation of the 13 Divine Attributes, which God taught to Moses. These can only be recited by a minyan of Jews, not by an individual. On Yom Kippur, all the Al hets – “For the sin which we committed” – are in the plural: Because Jews are responsible for one another, we are each implicated in the sins of others.
A midrash on Succot explains that we leave our well-protected homes for a flimsy, temporary dwelling as a protection against the extension of our current exile, which resulted from sinat hinam, baseless hatred. How so? When we exchange the security of our homes to live in a dwelling which reminds us of the Clouds of Glory that protected our ancestors in a howling wilderness, we simultaneously leave the material realm for a more spiritual realm. To the extent that we maintain a materialistic perspective, we tend to view our fellow Jews as competitors in a zero-sum battle for larger slices of a limited pie. But the spiritual realm is infinite, and when it is our focus, our fellow Jews become not competitors but partners in spiritual growth. Thus, the succa serves as an antidote to the division and hatred that brought about our millennial exile.
I AGREE with Fraenkel that the events of the summer aroused/revealed a powerful yearning for greater unity among Jews.
That yearning is no illusion. We watched the three sets of parents through their ordeal and were overwhelmed by their strength. And a few weeks later, we were again awed by the bravery of young Jewish soldiers putting their lives on the line to enter the Gaza Strip with its labyrinth of underground tunnels and booby-trapped homes, from which the heavily armed enemy might suddenly jump out at any moment.
Over the summer, I suspect there were few Jews in Israel not filled with gratitude for the privilege of being born into the eternal Jewish people.
By giving open expression to our gratitude, admiration and respect for Jews perhaps not exactly like ourselves, we gained a taste of what it might be like to view one another as precious brothers and sisters whose positive traits are far more prominent in our eyes than the negative. And we discovered that we like the taste.
We learned that we don’t have to construct our identities on the basis of denying any qualities worthy of emulation to those who do not belong to our group.
I was gratified that the haredi community did not stand apart from the intense identification with one another. In every neighborhood, there were collections of food and other items for the soldiers.
One person I knew I’d see this summer was Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff, a black-hatted rabbi from Queens. I first met him during the Second Lebanon War when he traveled around the North for several weeks giving encouragement to residents stuck in shelters. The next time I met him was at the shiva home of one of the yeshiva students murdered in Mercaz Harav: He had flown in for a day to visit all eight homes observing the shiva mourning period. And this summer he came on his own dime, after the cease-fire had gone into effect, to visit the most seriously wounded soldiers in hospitals from Haifa to Beersheba. When I wrote about his trip in Mishpacha, the largest-circulation haredi publication in the world, the response was overwhelming.
But the most important was that of Tzila Schneider, who runs an organization called Kesher Yehudi, which sets up learning partnerships between haredi and secular Jews. She dispatched a group of volunteers to Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center, where the largest contingent of seriously wounded soldiers is in rehabilitation, with the injunction: This is not to be a one-time visit only, but an ongoing relationship. There are now close to 30 volunteers learning weekly with soldiers who will likely be in hospital for a prolonged period of time.
IN THE spirit of the month of teshuva (repentance) and in response to Fraenkel’s plea that each of us try to do something to keep the spirit of the summer going, I’d like to express two things I admire about my fellow Israeli Jews.
By definition, anyone living in Israel must have some level of faith. There is no country whose citizens face, on a constant basis, so many mortal threats. Hezbollah possesses a huge arsenal of missiles – 10 times what Hamas had at the outset of Operation Protective Edge and of greater range and sophistication. It has the capacity to overwhelm the Iron Dome system.
Iran’s proxy on our border has also gained much battle experience in Syria.
The Golan Heights border is heating up again after decades of relative quiet, Jordan’s long-term stability is very much in question, and the Egyptian army is a long way from suppressing any threat from Sinai jihadists. And each of these threats – indeed all of them combined – pale besides that of a nuclear-armed Iran committed to wiping Israel off the map.
Yet Israeli Jews remain by almost every measure among the most optimistic people in the world. Perhaps it is davka because they subject themselves to so many dangers to live in the Jewish state that Israeli Jews are so optimistic about the future. Rabbi Noah Weinberg always used to challenge new students at Aish HaTorah to tell him what they’d be willing to die for. “If you don’t know what you’d be willing to die for, you don’t know what you are living for either,” he would say.
Because Israeli Jews know there is something they would be willing to die for, they also know there is some purpose to their lives. In the course of Operation Protective Edge, many farewell letters (to be opened only in the case of death) of soldiers killed in battle were published.
I was struck by how many of those soldiers, and not just the religious ones, expressed their willingness to risk their lives to protect “the Jewish people.”
The second quality that stands out about Israelis is a certain moral seriousness. When a suffocating political correctness has rendered common sense remarkably uncommon and the basic instinct for self-preservation has atrophied in Western societies, both qualities are plentiful in Israel. Israel’s situation does not permit us the luxury of viewing the world around as we would like it to be, rather than as it is.
Every time I fly out of Israel without having to remove my shoes or being left clutching my pants after having been deprived of my belt, I’m grateful to live in a country where it is not forbidden to use a flicker of intelligence in determining whom to search. For that too I am grateful.
Best wishes for a successful Yom Kippur davening and a joyous Succot.
■ The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in the Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.