When Jacob our patriarch was on his deathbed, he implored his children: האספו ואגידה לכם את אשר יקרא אתכם באחרית הימים – “Come together and I will tell you what will become of you at the end of days.” Jacob was instructing his sons, whose lives had been marked by tragic discord and brotherly resentment, that the only way they could enter into a conversation about what would occur at the “end of days”- about how they could and would endure as a people – is if they could put aside their differences and come together (האספו). Perhaps thinking that his sons failed to understand what he meant by this request, Jacob repeats his appeal for unity, even more directly, exclaiming: הקבצו ושמעו בני יעקב ושמעו אל ישראל אביכם – “Assemble and listen to Israel, your father!” Sadly, our Rabbis tell us, Jacob’s sons failed to answer his call to Achdut (unity) and Jacob’s prophetic spirit was taken away from him at the very moment he wanted to speak to his children about Jewish destiny. Ostensibly, this was because of the sons’ failure to respond to Jacob’s insistence on national unity as a prerequisite to gaining insight into the future of the Jewish people.
Up to this very day, thousands of years after the death of Jacob, we too have failed to answer the call to national unity. In just the past 80 years, we have gone from “death to life” with the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, from “darkness to light” in the miraculous victories of 1948, 1967 and 1973 and yet we are still plagued by the shackles of divisiveness, sectarianism and discord that prevent us from contemplating our national “redemption.” We have seen and endured Hitler, Stalin, Nasser, Arafat, Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and Meshaal. We are constantly charged with fighting aggressors who want to eradicate us; yet, we still can’t manage to stop fighting among ourselves. I ask you, “if we are not for ourselves, then who is?” The British? The French? The Germans? The Russians? The Brazilians? The Chileans? The 22 Arab countries? The United Nations?! Sadly, one can count on one’s fingers the true friends of Israel and the Jewish people. So what can we do? What must we do? Come together. Now.
For “if not now, when?” We must reach across denominational, political, and demographic fault lines. Whether we are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chareidi, Modern, liberal, conservative, Ashkenazic, or Sephardic – it is time for us to finally heed the call of Jacob to “come together and listen” and acknowledge our shared destiny as B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel.
There is no better time to answer this call than on Rosh Hashana, for it is on Rosh Hashana that we pray for the realization of the dream of national unity with the words: ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם – “May we all come together as one community to wholeheartedly serve God.” Some years ago, in our community in Scarsdale, New York, we decided to actualize this ideal by joining with our neighbors from Westchester Reform Temple in holding a communal Tashlich (in memory of our late Rabbi and Rebbitzen, Jacob and Debbie Rubenstein) at a local stream on a pathway that bridges our communities. While there was some initial trepidation as to how this would work for both our communities, we overcame whatever doubts we had and made it happen in a beautiful, moving and meaningful way.
So it was, that on the first day of Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Rick Jacobs (then the senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple) urged his Reform congregants to walk to the Tashlich service out of respect for our Orthodox community’s sensibilities and I assured him that his congregants would be made to feel very much welcomed at Tashlich, regardless of how they came. I spoke and Rabbi Jacobs spoke, we then led those assembled in the recitation of Psalms and in the singing of a few songs. We did this together לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם – in the spirit of serving God, His Torah and His people. We were able to accomplish this because it did not matter to us that our notions of God may differ and our interpretations of His Torah are clearly dissimilar. What did matter to us was that we all identified as His people and that our shared history and identity bind us together in a common destiny. While this kind of program may seem unorthodox (small o), I ask you, why not? What are we afraid of? If we are confident in our religious convictions regardless of the labels that may be affixed to our religious practices, why should we be so reluctant to come together in common purpose and with wholehearted devotion to His people? All who have participated in this unique Tashlich experience have highlighted it on their calendars as a remarkable and uplifting part of the Yamim Noraim. And since that first communal Tashlich several years ago, the crowd from both of our communities has grown larger and larger each year.
A few months ago, during the harrowing weeks of the desperate search to find Gilad, Eyal and Naphtali alive – Rachelle Fraenkel (the mother of Naphtali) said something I will never forget. She told a group of American Rabbis who were on a conference call with her that “regardless of how this turns out,” the tremendous sense of “real Achdut” that this experience has brought to the people of Israel and to Jews around the world – is reason enough for it to have taken place – “go out and spread this spirit of Achdut to your communities in their merit.”
Rachelle’s remarkable courage and faith are inspiring. So inspiring that her call to Achdut, on that erev Shabbat, inspired me to call my colleagues at Westchester Reform Temple and Temple Israel of New Rochelle and arrange an impromptu tefillah (prayer) rally on Shabbat morning after services at the Young Israel of Scarsdale with hundreds of our congregants and theirs in attendance. I have also heard stories of other communities who organized similar events. Prayer is powerful; prayer in the spirit of unity with all kinds of Jews is awe-inspiring. Rachelle’s words and the merit of those three precious Jewish souls – continue to inspire me, and so many others.
Talking about Achdut is nice, but actively demonstrating Achdut is what is truly necessary in our time. The time is now to answer the call and come together as a united people, as an אגודה אחת. It is the beginning of the month of Elul and I have an idea. What if Jewish communities around the world came together on the first day of Rosh Hashana the way we have in our community? If you are a Rabbi, a layleader, or just a Jew who wants to make a difference, here’s what you can do. Make a phone call, send an email, a text or a letter to a Rabbi or congregant of a congregation different than your own and say that this year you want to try something different for Tashlich.
You want to come together on Rosh Hashana. As One People with One Heart. Right Now.
May the new year 5775 bring us closer to redemption and to each other and may God bring peace to us and all Israel.
Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern is the Rabbi at the Young Israel of Scarsdale in Scarsdale, New York.