Klal Yisrael. All of Israel.
One people. One community.
Newspapers and web sites recently reported about several hundred passengers – Orthodox yeshiva students, tourists, secular college-aged Jews on Birthright – who were scheduled to fly to Israel found themselves stranded at JFK by the terrible blizzard that struck the northeast at the end of 2010.
Delayed and isolated in the terminal without food and growing more irritable by the minute, “Several rabbis traveling with the group sprang into action, working their connections with the local Orthodox communities to get help. In an amazing act of chesed (loving-kindness) and a deeply rooted sense of klal Yisrael (solidarity amongst Jews of all persuasions), the Five Towns local Orthodox community worked to bring meals to the airport and provide temporary housing to the young passengers who didn’t want to wait at the airport. Despite continuing blizzard conditions and snow drifting to heights of four feet or more, they shuttled food to the nearby airport and transformed what could have been a completely abysmal experience into an uplifting one. In a day and age where we often hear about the divisions within the Jewish community it is always nice to see that, despite our differences, Jews are always willing to help each other out in a jam.”
Would that it was always so!
There is no greater blessing for Jews than unity, and no greater curse than discord, strife and machlokes. And yet, despite the clear blessing of unity, we seem so often to be defined by our divisions rather than our common purpose and community. There is hardly a corner among Jews where acrimony, negativism, and hatred don’t reign supreme; barely a place where we don’t hear Jews defaming others’ spiritual leaders, opinions, and writings! Such factionalism and feuding can lead only to disaster.
True happiness for Jews is only possible when there is unity. Absent an embrace of our unity, we will always be diminished by festering anger, angst, and anxiety. We know we should constantly re-dedicate ourselves to our sacred, more noble natures, yet we too often fall victim to our baser inclinations. As a result, pettiness, jealousy, misunderstanding and disrespect define our dealings with our fellows.
How timely then, that Purim is before us! How good it is that the ultimate purpose and focus of this, the happiest of Jewish holidays, and of its central source, Megilas Esther, is to create and reinforce unity and harmony among Jews. How good it is that Purim teaches me to embrace the community I share not only with those I consider friends but also with those far distant who come “stretching out their hand” asking for my understanding and generosity.
For on Purim we must reach out to one another; all who “stretch out their hand” must be responded to. If only for this one marvelous day, we must get beyond our stubborn refusal to acknowledge others who are “not like us”. If only for this one day, we must reach out to anyone and everyone in the Jewish community.
On Purim, we give gifts. The mitzvah of mishloach manos, that each person give a friend two varieties of food as a present, is based on the pasuk, “ U’mishloach manot ish l’reiyhu,”. Many commentaries observe that this custom comes to us in direct remembrance of the unity that defined the Jewish people in Shushan, when disaster was looming darkly on the horizon.
Then, in response to Esther’s call, we gathered as one in prayer and fasting. Every Jew and his fellow. Together. Our unity of need, purpose and practice was surely the key factor in reversing Haman’s cruel decree. Our unity implicitly and explicitly disproved Haman’s argument that “there is a certain people scattered and dispersed (mefuzar u’meforad) among the peoples.”
The p’shat of Haman’s argument is the accusation that the nation of Israel “stands opposed and apart” refusing to assimilate among the nations of the world. It is a slander we continue to hear even today. But, in the heavenly courts scattered and dispersed had a deeper meaning. It was an allusion to machlokes – the disunity that was pervasive among Jews at the time. To dispel evil decrees against our nation, the heavenly courts expect us to live in harmony with ish l’reiyhu.
What greater expression of harmony between ish l’reiyhu than the breaking of bread? Isn’t this what happened at JFK airport that snowy night? Isn’t this how we show our true willingness to reach out to another Jew? Which makes the mitzvah of mishloach manot all the more powerful.
The Tur states that if two friends “trade” meals on Purim, they fulfill the obligation of mishloach manot. Ran understands this to mean that if in given year, two friends do not have enough food for themselves as well as to give to a friend, each one can send the one meal he has to his fellow, so that both will have food for a Purim seudah and each will also have sent mishloach manot. Rashi however, says, that it means that they may eat together at one of their homes one year, and at the other’s home the following year.
The Beis Yosef does not understand how this can possibly fulfill the obligation of mishloach manot so Bach explains – that if we accept as the ultimate purpose of mishloach manot as creating unity, affection, brotherhood and genuine friendship among all Jews, family and friends as well as Jews whom I consider as strangers – then it follows that by my willingness to dine together with my fellow Jew (to sit at his tisch with his rebbe at the helm) and be in good cheer doing it, then the core of the mitzvah is fulfilled. That is, simply sitting with my fellow Jew and eating with him (even if I eat my own food!) suffices to fulfill the mitzvah. Accordingly, says the Bach, they need not actually switch the place of the seudah – so long as they sit together under the same roof each year, the obligation is fulfilled.
Sitting ish l’reiyhu is not only the province of the needy. It may also be practiced by the wealthy. With the emotional distance between Jews so incredibly great, it is not farfetched to recognize that shrinking the physical distance between us might also diminish the psychological and philosophical one as well!
Let us find cheer and joy in sharing a meal with one another, rather than allowing our distance to harm us!
My grandfather, Reb Yaakov Zev Marcovici, z”l was a gentle, kind and peace-loving man who would say about Jews who might not share his goals and values, that they “were good, but only Shabbos tzu essen a kugel mit zei” ; that is, good but only so good as to eat kugel with on Shabbos.
For my grandfather and those like him, true happiness was embracing and being embraced by klal Yisrael , sharing with and loving fellow Jews. His attic was accessible only by a side staircase. In that attic, he kept a large wooden case filled with money, to which anyone in need, irrelevant of affiliation or persuasion, could come up to take what his needs demanded. No one – not even my grandmother – knew who came, when they came or how much they took. But come they did.
The holiday of Purim teaches us the importance of unity. For this one day, we must reach out to klal Yisrael. Better still, to follow my grandfather’s example. He embraced ish l’reyihu throughout the year, not only on Purim. Could he not rightfully sing Shoshanas Yaakov…bireosam yachad techeles Mordechai ? The Sighter Rav in Yitav Panim points to the joyous Purim song Shoshanas Yaakov which uses the phrase bireosam yachad techeles Mordechai , when they saw as one the techeles worn by Mordechai, as a physical sign that acknowledged that it was the Jews’ bonding as one that countered Haman’s charge of mefuzar u’meforad. When we Jews are be’yachad, we are redeemed. It is the unified nation that merits redemption; a splintered people remains in Galus, both geographical and spiritual.
Were Israel to be together in one ‘bundle’, no nation or language could rule over them. (Bamidbar Rabbah 15)
After all is said and done in Megilas Esther, what are we left with? Some raucous celebration of our miraculous escape from ruin? The extra imbibing, the feast, charity and manos?
What are we left with after the last of the hamantaschen is consumed?
The Megilah ends summarizing the significance of Mordechai’s life: doresh tov le’amo vedover shalom l’chol zar’o – “he sought the good of his people and was concerned for the welfare of all his posterity (10:3) His life mission was to create peace, harmony, brotherhood and love among all of klal yisrael. Nevertheless, he was only “favored by most of his brethren” (ratzui l’rov echav). Even a leader of Mordechai’s caliber has detractors. There are always those who find their leaders, less than perfect, even when it is obvious that they seek “the good of his people.”
If only we clamored for unity as readily as we clamor for discord; if only we cared for our brothers and neighbors as much as we care for our own comforts and short-sighted goals. If only…if only we were worthy of such leaders as Mordecai.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing. The second edition of his Sometimes You Are What You Wear, Xlibris Corp has been published in 2010.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.