Question: When is a new shul considered successful?
Answer: When it’s big enough to spawn its first breakaway minyan.
This past August, observers went to great lengths to show, correctly, the silver lining of achdus within the dark clouds of terrorism. The three martyred yeshiva students, the barrage of rocket fire, the mass retreats into bomb shelters, the cost of the Gaza operation in precious Jewish lives – all of these brought Jews in Israel and around the world together and, for at least a moment, put an end to the divisiveness that too often characterizes our community. Now, the brutal terrorist attack in Har Nof promises a similar response. This is a genuine consolation, and should not be discounted.
What compounds these tragedies, however, is the cycle of missed opportunity that has repeated itself again and again and again.
Let history be our guide. After 40 years in the desert, the Jews entered Eretz Yisroel in unity, like one man with one heart, fighting together to claim and conquer the land that had been promised to their forefathers. But almost immediately after the death of Yehoshua, the incident of the concubine of Givoh led to a civil war that almost annihilated the tribe of Binyomin. Common purpose and brotherhood disintegrated into mutual suspicion and unbridled vengeance within a single generation.
This tragic pattern defines the entire Book of Judges. Perhaps the most egregious example follows Yiphtach’s rallying the people to take up arms against the Ammonites, whose 18-year domination of the Jewish people was the longest in the entire era of the Judges. Barely had Yiphtach returned from victory, however, when the tribe of Ephraim accused him of willfully excluding them from joining in battle to overthrow their oppressors. In the violent clash that followed, 42 thousand Ephraimites were killed by the tribe of Menashe.
Skip ahead six centuries to after the fall of the Bablyonian Empire, when the Jews refused to follow Zerubavel back to Eretz Yisroel to reclaim their homeland. Instead, they remained “scattered and dispersed,” in such of state of disunity that Haman and Achashverosh believed their plan of genocide could not fail.
The pattern continues through post-Biblical history. The unity inspired by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks led to an autonomous Jewish commonwealth for the first time in 300 years. But the internecine intrigues of the Tzaddukim and the Hellenists ignited a bloody campaign against the Torah community. One generation later, a bitter power struggle between the Hasmonean brothers Hyraknus and Aristobulus cost tens of thousands of lives and eventually allowed Rome to gain a foothold in Eretz Yisroel, which led to the second churban. And we know all too well that the primary cause of the current exile was, and is, senseless hatred – the contempt for and mistrust of other Jews for the unpardonable sin of being even a little bit different.
The point is this. We are very good at coming together in the face of a common enemy. This is why Hashem sent us down to Egypt in the first place, as a tikkun for the family discord that culminated in Yosef’s brothers selling him into slavery.
But it is not enough for us to come together in times of crisis. What is painfully obvious from history is that we as a people can fulfill the purpose for which we were created only if we remain united after the threat has passed and peace has returned among us. As long as we stand together merely because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” can we really expect a lasting peace, whether from within or from without? It is how we continue to act toward one another after after the missiles stop falling that ultimately determines our future.
When my wife and I moved to the Jerusalem suburb of Neve Yaakov 22 years ago, we were among the second wave of pioneers, following the 36 families who first took up residence in the new subdivision downhill from the established Kamenetz neighborhood.
Those courageous souls had stories to tell. There was just enough (hijacked) electricity for each family to run a refrigerator and one light bulb, and a rotation system allowed families to use one major appliance – typically the oven or the washing machine – for two hours a day. I heard tell of one neighbor who came knocking to ask to borrow 15 minutes of electricity; his wife’s cake wasn’t done yet.
Things were a little better when we moved in, but not by much. The streets were unpaved and overrun by heavy equipment and Arab workers. There was no bus service. A few weeks after we moved in, two payphones appeared for the entire neighborhood; but these were little help when my wife went into labor, since no one close enough to call had a phone line. (Remember the days before cell phones?)
In the winter, our space heaters invariably overloaded the circuit breakers, and on erev Shabbos the water pressure turned to a trickle. Minyonim met in mobile homes, bomb shelters, storage closets, and my living room.
But the sense of achdus was palpable. Our second-hand Torah scrolls regularly turned up posul, and we ran from minyan to minyan borrowing from this one this week and lending out to that one next week. When growing numbers necessitated a new minyan, it was the gabbai of the old minyan who showed up with a load of bookshelves and siddurim. Walking home from shul Friday night, we Ashkenazim greeted the Sephardim with Shabbat Shalom while they greeted us with Gut Shabbos.
So here’s the challenge. How do we not become victims of our own success, as we have so many times throughout history? What will convince us to summon up mesiras nefesh for shalom the way we do for all our other priorities, whether religious, economic, or political? When will we realize how much we need each other, even when our enemies are not storming the gates?
Or will we keep looking for ways to divide ourselves from ourselves, whether according the color of our kippas or the style of our skirts or the pronunciation of our Hebrew? Is it really best for us to carve ourselves up into such narrow demographic, social, and ideological slices that we only come in contact with other Jews who dress, act, and think exactly the way we do?
B’ezras Hashem, before too long some measure of peace and consolation will return to Eretz Yisroel. But will it endure? Only if we remain committed to one another in peace as we have under siege. Indeed, the way we manage the peace will determine whether it will last for a month, for a year, or for all eternity. And when the era of eternal peace finally arrives, may it be soon, we will wonder why we spent so much effort and energy dividing ourselves up in so many different ways for so many long and painful years.
Adapted from an article originally published in Mishpacha magazine.
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