Avi Lewis

Giving may be the key to Jewish unity

I’ve always been troubled by the thought that the only apparent way to unite the Jewish people is through an external threat such as antisemitism

Could it be that we set aside our differences and band together only at times when our survival is at stake?

Immediately following Hamas’ barbaric massacre on October 7th it felt like all of Israel had come together in grief and determination to defend itself against a heinous enemy

Throughout October, November and December there was a special feeling of harmony in the air

As an IDF Reserve Duty soldier I felt the love. I felt the whole country behind us. I felt the warmth and concern of the Jewish world. I felt part of one body and one heart

We were beating to the same rhythm. It was exhilarating

Now months later as the memory of Oct 7th starts to fade from public discourse, it seems like we’re at each other again: from political wrangling to heated protests to angry TV panels

Don’t get me wrong. Support for the IDF and the aims of the war in Gaza have broad support across Israeli society

But that initial shock and survival instinct is starting to wane and the cracks of Oct 6th are reappearing

If I had to pinpoint the biggest issues facing the Jewish people today I would pick the following three umbrella topics:

  1. Assimilation and the decline of Jewish identity amongst many, but not all Jews
  2. Threats to our lifestyle and physical wellbeing emanating from antisemitism, Jew hatred and terrorism
  3. Division, discord, factionalism and strife

And from these three meta-topics I believe that the final one, i.e. division, is actually the most harmful and to a great extent exacerbates the other two

We have always been a proud people. The Torah calls us “stiff necked”. As the old joke goes: “two Jews, three opinions.”

Not that diversity of thought is bad. On the contrary – when channeled in a respectful, tolerant manner, difference of opinion forms the bedrock of Jewish thought and inquiry in the spirit of Talmudic debate

Questions are encouraged from an early age. At the Passover seder the youngest child at the table sings the “Ma Nishtana”, the four questions

However more often than not throughout our turbulent history, difference of opinion, thought and ideology have crossed the line into dispute, conflict and ultimately collapse

As the Mishna in Avot states: “Every disagreement for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end; those not for the sake of Heaven, won’t endure. Which disagreement was for the sake of Heaven? Hillel and Shammai. Which wasn’t? Korach and his rebellion”

When both sides are motivated by the pursuit of truth and seeking the wellbeing of the Jewish people, differences of opinion enhance our intellectual climate

When motivated by ego, differences of opinion are a merely a smokescreen to further personal vendettas and individual gain at expense of the collective

It’s said that students in Hillel’s school would learn Shammai’s rulings first in a sign of deference and respect. Jewish unity was in full bloom

Korach on the other hand wanted to usurp authority and become leader. His insurgency was bound to sow discord and doomed to fail

Unfortunately our history is replete with disagreements “not for the sake of Heaven” that end up tearing us apart

During the First Temple period the united monarchy split into entities: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judea in the south – an event which paved the way for the destruction and exile of both Jewish states

The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple along was destroyed due to “baseless hatred”

Josephus fills in the gaps and narrates how the Jewish factions in Jerusalem failed to band together despite being besieged by the Roman army. The fact they burned each other’s granaries, hastened the city’s demise and demonstrated just how destructive discord can be

Before the Talmud was publicly burned in Paris in the 13th century, Rambam’s works were denounced by his Jewish opponents to the authorities. The former set off a chain of events that led to the latter

Even today, we see no shortage of Jews that tokenize their Jewish identity in the service of anti-Zionism to stand against the world’s only Jewish state

The anti-Israel crowd has no shortage of “as-a-Jew” types to point to in support of their agenda

It seems that the one constant in our history is that we’ve been divided into various groups and factions

External threats and antisemitism can bring us together at times, but their staying power is limited, it doesn’t always work and the underlying motive to unify is brought about under negative circumstances

When we’re divided, antisemitism increases, threats increase and assimilation increases

When we’re unified, our ability to stand up to Jew-hate expands, we present a stronger front against threats and the beauty of community and togetherness provides more incentive for young Jews to remain in the fold

So is there some collective, internal glue that can hold us together and keep us consolidated in the absence of (or despite) external threats?

This is a question that I have long asked myself and being troubled by it, I embarked on a mission to ask those around me

Recently I received an answer that satisfied me and my excitement was two-fold when I realized that this very answer was provided in the Purim Story, in Megillat Esther

On face value the Purim story reads like a classic narrative of Jews who in their default state of being “scattered and dispersed amongst the nations” band together when confronted by an external threat, eventually prevailing

However coded in at the end, the Megillah provides practical advice on how to maintain this sense of togetherness – years and even generations after the initial memory of the threat has faded

I believe that the practical advice of the Megillah is the internal antidote to Jewish division

After the Jews had successfully defended themselves against their genocidal enemies they were told to give each other “Mishlochei Manot”, gifts of food and drink, and “Matanot La’Evyonim”, charity to the poor – year after year to commemorate the events of the Purim story

The act of giving something of yourself without expecting anything in return is a powerful gesture

It affects both the giver and the receiver – even if there are no warm feelings to begin with

The receiver receives something and feels enriched by it

But what of the giver?

The giver parts with something that belongs to him – time, money, effort – but what does he get in return?

German-Jewish philosopher Erich Fromm built the substance of his work around the idea that ‘to love is to give’

Indeed that’s a straightforward thesis: for example a parent loves their child and therefore gives to them and provides for their needs. Spouses love each and give to one another

But what if there are no initial feelings of love to begin with?

How could I give?

What if the person I’m supposed to give to happens to be a fellow Jew, but otherwise is completely different to me, in outlook, dress, ideology, lifestyle and belief?

What if the basis of what seems to be tying us together – our shared peoplehood – also seems to be an accident of birth?

What if we’re shouting at each other from behind the barricades of opposing rallies?

Do I still give? Can I still give?

While ‘to love is to give’ is uncomplicated, I think that the message of the Megillah may be the inverse:

“To give is to love”

Meaning to give even when there is no initial love

Altruism is easy when giving to someone that belong to my group – to one of “us”

It’s hard to give when the recipient belongs to the Other, is one of “them”

By giving, I start to develop feelings of fondness

The receiver is pleasantly surprised and ultimately begins to rethink their preconceived notions

By investing in something or someone, I feel that I have a stake in the matter and I want to see it thrive and succeed

The receiver feels affection and as a result is transformed

By giving we can condition ourselves to love

And we can impart that on the other side as well

Rav Eliyahu Dessler Z”L points out that the root of the Hebrew word for love – “Ahavah” – is unsurprisingly the word “hav” which means to give

In the words of Rev Dessler “every positive emotion stems from giving and flows outward from us to others, whereas every negative emotions revolves around taking for selfish motives … Giving leads to love”

We live in a generation of unprecedented individuality, where popular culture stresses that “I” am at the center of the universe and everything revolves around me – the ‘iPhone’,’ and iPad’ are some buzzword examples

And yet people are unhappier than ever

That’s because in a world where “I” am all that’s important, there’s no incentive to give, only to take

Yet giving uplifts us a way that no gift received can compete with

The truth is that giving unconditionally probably has a greater impact on the one giving rather than on the receiver

But both sides are ultimately impacted for the better

Since Oct 7th we’ve seen some heartwarming initiatives across Israel of unconditional giving

In one small example, the residents of Matityahu, a Haredi town, stood outside the entrance of the nearby secular town Lapid before Shabbat to offer Challot and baked goods to incoming motorists

The residents of Lapid, touched by the gesture, stood outside of Matityahu the following Friday to offer flowers and mementos in return

Other towns across Israel replicated this little act of giving, for example the religious town of Neriya and the secular town of Nili

Neighbors, who drive past each other on a daily basis but share no meaningful interactions, were suddenly bound together through kindness

Relationships were formed. Get togethers were scheduled

Witnessing these initiatives up close has made me realize just how strong of a glue giving can be

External threats can unify the Jewish people temporarily and incompletely

But giving to each other on a regular basis can bring us together in far more powerful and positive way

And perhaps that’s the message of the Purim story

“Haman’s” come and go throughout the generations. We survived them in the past and we’ll survive them in the present and future

But ‘Mishlochei Manot’ – giving to each other in that genuine, unconditional manner – can form a bedrock of unity that can outlive external threats and ensure that our inevitable and natural disagreements remain within the realm of “for the sake of Heaven”

Many individual acts of giving on a person-to-person basis eventually create a snowball effect of relationships and networks that cross sectorial lines

And that may just be the secret recipe of the glue of internal Jewish unity

About the Author
Avi was formerly a news writer at the Times of Israel. Originally from Australia, he served in the IDF and today works in Israel's thriving Hi Tech sector in Tel Aviv. He lives near Modi'in with wife and 3 kids
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