Can’t we all just get along? Pursuing unity beyond tragedy

As political divisiveness and interpersonal disagreement piles up around the world, I’ve found myself thinking about achdut — unity.

This week, I was asked to share a few thoughts in the Jewish Journal’s Table for Five column on the pasuk in Parashat Chayei Sarah wherein Yitzchak and Yishmael bury their father Avraham in Me’arat HaMachpelah. The pasuk reads:

“And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron, the son of Zohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre.” -Gen. 25:9

It’s a brief passage, but I immediately saw the theme of achdut within these few words. Yitzchak and Yishmael, half-brothers who could not be more different, come together for this one solemn task. Together, they bury Avraham, their father; in this moment, their differences are irrelevant in the face of their unity as dutiful sons.

But there is something particularly and potently relevant in the fact that the unifying impetus is the tragedy of Avraham’s death. When their father lived, Yishmael and Yitzchak pursued their wildly divergent lives; only when burdened with loss do they come together.

I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in our modern Jewish lives. So often, our nation only seems to experience true achdut in times of tragedy and trouble. We’ve seen it for centuries and we saw it firsthand just months ago, in the aftermath of the horrific attack at the Chabad of Poway. 

Why are we so dependant on loss to bring us together? Why can’t the Jewish nation, even with our internal differences, find mutual respect and achdut at times of celebration and joy — or even just in our daily lives?

The fact is, it’s difficult to answer this question. Achdut is an incredibly powerful force for the Jewish people; it characterizes the most elevated moments in our national existence. But it is correspondingly difficult for us to achieve, much less maintain.

So my approach is to find demonstrations of achdut wherever I can.

I found achdut last week on a basketball court in Los Angeles, where Jewish teenagers came together to play in the annual Glouberman Basketball Tournament. Teams from around the country came together in both competition and a spirit of respect and empathy, playing their hardest but also maintaining the bonds that tied each player to a greater “team.” 

I know it sounds trite to say that everyone came away from the Tournament a winner, but I really think it’s true. Yes, the event was a demonstration of basketball prowess, but much more important was the congeniality, friendship, and achdut that was not just created, but was bolstered and maintained throughout the competition. It was touching to watch, and I am deeply proud of all the students who came to play and cheer on this demonstration of togetherness.

I also found achdut last week at The Shalhevet Institute. At the Community Leaders Seminar, leaders representing the breadth of the Los Angeles community came together for an evening of serious learning and dialogue. They discussed the relationship between sincerity and performance in the observance of mitzvot. They found differences and disagreements, but also striking and fundamental similarities. The evening’s conversation was intense and effective and characterized by the kind of unity that raises up everyone who participates in it.

And I learned about achdut demonstrated at the Pardes Institute’s Lo BaShamayim Hee conference. Rabbi David Stein, my colleague who attended and spoke at the event, made specific mention of how impressed he was by the commitment to, and the active work of achdut undertaken during the conference. 

The event was attended by teachers from Orthodox, Conservative, and Community schools, all learning and thinking together about engaging students in the study of Gemara. Representatives from schools across the wide spectrum of Jewish thought united for the purpose of nurturing Jewish learning in the next generation. Importantly, the unity that was nurtured did not rely on one uniform approach, but rather a collective commitment to this vital and beautiful idea of communicating Torah and tradition to young Jewish minds.

Taken on their own, one conference, one seminar, and one basketball tournament won’t solve all of our struggles with achdut in the Jewish world. But if we view these events as part of a communal journey, an active and ongoing effort to move past our differences and work together, I find these events profoundly encouraging.

The work of achdut is never easy. But as I write this from Israel, watching all kinds of Jews mingle together, arguing like family but also loving each other as family, I feel as though true achdut is more achievable than we think.

Let’s strive to make unity part of our daily lives, rather than relying on tragedy and loss to unite the Jewish nation. Let’s not come together when it is time to do the work of burial, but rather the work of vibrant life. Let’s find love and acceptance for one another, even if we still have differences. 

If we do this work, I have no doubt that we will be able to find both the joy and the strength in true and lasting achdut.


About the Author
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School, in California.