Dear Rabbinic Colleagues,
It is no secret that we live in unprecedented times.
On the one hand, the global coronavirus pandemic has united us in ways that we could not have imagined. In spite of the “social distancing” guidelines, our communities have come together with a many initiatives of kindness and with a wide variety of online programs where people from all walks of life have had the opportunity to pray and to learn, to laugh and to celebrate, and above all, to fight their solitude and connect, heart to heart, soul to soul.
On the other hand, we are living in a deeply polarized and divided society, where our status as “one nation under God” is menaced by discords of all sorts. People of all backgrounds are increasingly segregating themselves in self-imposed mental cages defined by political parties and ideologies.
So dare I ask, what is the role of us, Rabbis, especially during this unusual era?
Interestingly, the Torah defines our role as “the heads of the thousands of Israel,” (Numbers 1:15). This verse implies that leaders, like us, ought to be “heads.”
A healthy head can feel, attend to, and create peace and harmony between every single part of the body, even those parts that others may consider “insignificant” or “expendable.” And if a certain limb is in disarray, the head does not scold it. Nor does it issue statements to the whole world, via the pulpit or on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media avenues, claiming that it is broken and dysfunctional and that it ought to fix itself, or else… Rather, a healthy head attends to those limbs intimately, and with indefatigable patience, unwavering devotion, and unconditional love.
And so, we too must be like those healthy heads.
Our foremost duty is to create peace and harmony between every single part of the collective body of our nation. Any topic that ignites flames of friction and disaccord should be off-limits. And if a Jew seems to have been led astray, instead of scolding them and their political party, we ought to embrace them and share with them the beauty and relevance of our Torah, whose “ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace (- Proverbs 3:17).” In the poignant words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “a little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.”
In 1963, NASA Professor Velvl Greene, wrote a lengthy letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, presenting his scientific views and disagreements. The two continued to communicate, but the Rebbe never related to Green’s disagreements. Only after many months, in which Professor Greene had made strides in his personal Jewish journey, the Rebbe finally addressed the views of Professor Green in a letter. “You are probably wondering, why I waited this long to respond to your remarks on scientific matters,” the Rebbe wrote. “But my job in life is not to win arguments; my job is to bring the light of the Torah, its teachings, and its Mitzvahs to all.”
Similarly, I once asked my beloved mentor, world-scholar, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, who just passed away over three weeks ago, why he doesn’t write about politics and current affairs.
“You write on so many important topics – from theological to social criticism,” I told him. “I’m sure your words could provide wisdom and clarity for so many.”
Without skipping a beat, he replied: “Pinny, I prefer to write for the next generations, not just for the next few months. You see, my goal in life is not to plant small plants, that come and go. My goal in life is to plant steady and long-lasting trees that will produce fruits for hundreds and thousands of years.”
As so, my fellow colleagues, I beg you:
Please do not mix Rabbinics and politics. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not during the upcoming High Holidays. And not ever.
Focus your mind on the endless potential of the Divine souls that your congregants possess; not on the limits of their physical bodies. Use your heart to palpitate love and to impart on them compassion and empathy, instead of conveying all sorts of negative sentiments. And carry your voice to channel a message of unity and empowerment, rather than delivering words of discord and division.
Let us set before our eyes, always, our sacred duty to be ‘healthy heads,” who are endowed with the God-given merit to “bring the light of the Torah, its teachings, and its Mitzvahs to all,” and to “plant steady and long-lasting trees that will produce fruits” infused with a Divine taste of goodness, that will leave our communities hungry for more and more, “for generations to come.”
With admiration and respect, L’shana Tova Tikateivu ve’Tichateimu,