I Jew, you Jew

Sapir Cohen is one of the strongest humans I have ever met. This week, I was privileged to hear her harrowing but profoundly inspiring story of faith and resourcefulness while held captive by Hamas. Shivers ran down our spines throughout her talk. One of her most poignant anecdotes was when she glimpsed a TV clip from Israel. Sapir had been nabbed out of a fractured country, squabbling over its government, legal system and religion. The TV scenes stunned her. Black-hatted and pink-haired Israelis stood as one. One of the terrorists muttered how Jews are impossibly powerful when united. Sapir concluded her talk with an urgent plea for continued Jewish unity. 

We understand the power of standing together, and it frustrates us because we cannot seem to get it right. As we count the Omer, we remember the great Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students who died because they lacked mutual respect. Our Temple was destroyed because of disunity. We seem stuck in a cycle of internal conflicts. 

After Sapir’s talk, someone commented how Jews need an external threat to bring us together. That may be accurate, but is it the only option? There must be a way to achieve lasting Achdut that is not a product of antisemitism.

It may sound cliched, but we could learn from our enemies. They do not discriminate between black hats and knitted kippot. They attack Tel Aviv and Meah Shearim equally. Only we erect barriers between ourselves. 

Sapir’s talk reminded me of something the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches regarding this week’s Torah portion. A chunk of the Parsha describes our festivals, including Sukkot, the last festival we celebrated before October 7th. Last Sukkot, the holiday of Jewish unity, was marred by internal division. A day later, Hamas forced us to confront our innate oneness.

During Sukkot, we bless the Four Species, which teach us how to join as one. Interestingly, the Torah has unique requirements for all but one of these plants. A kosher Etrog must be “hadar”, beautiful, which explains why religious Jews splurge on bright yellow, unblemished citrons. Only a Lulav from a date palm, ideally one that has produced fruit, is acceptable. A lulav from a Floridian Royal Plam would not cut it. Hadassim myrtles must grow in a unique formation: Each twig has to have three leaves per node. Only the Aravot have no specific requirements. While the Torah calls them “river willows”, the Talmud explains that location doesn’t matter. The secret of sustainable Jewish unity lies in the unsophisticated willow.

Perhaps the most well-known insight into the Four Species is that each signifies a different type of Jew. The fragrant, tasty Etrog represents the Jew dedicated to goodness and well-versed in Torah. The Lulav is the central stem of a date palm. Dates are delicious but odourless, like the learned Jew, who prioritises study over good deeds. The aromatic Hadassim myrtles symbolise the charitable Jew with scant Torah knowledge. And the bland Aravot willows represent the Jew who has all but checked out of their Judaism. We bless them all together as a sign of Jewish unity. 

A yeshivah student may believe scholars are the ultimate Jews. A chayal may argue that fighting for our country is more Jewish than studying Talmud. So, the Torah reminds us that the willow is as valuable as the Etrog, despite its lack of colour and smell. The message is clear: If you limit your version of Jewish unity to those who are like you, that is not unity at all. The bland willow is there because it belongs, not because it has contributed. We have no community until we accept as equal the Jew whose only claim to his religion is his genealogy. The unaffiliated Jew reminds us who we really are. We are not the sum of the pages of Talmud we have learned or the charities we have supported. We are Jews. All of us. There is no difference. 

One of my favourite stories is about the legendary Reb Mendel Futerfas, a hero of Soviet Jewry and a legendary teacher and mentor to hundreds. Reb Mendel was once on an El Al flight where Chabad yeshivah students offered passengers to don Tefillin. One intractable American refused, and the boys were disappointed. So, the veteran Chossid approached him and, in his heavy Russian accent, said one line that had him roll up his sleeve in a flash. 

”I Jew, you Jew, “I Tefillin, you Tefillin”. 

His message was simple and genuine. I am not religious, and you secular. I have not come to preach but to connect. Reb Mendel’s smiling eyes conveyed that the Russian scholar and the Yankee businessman were family.

The Arava expresses the essence of the Jew. We have nothing to prove. “I Jew, you Jew”. We need to ditch the labels and reclaim our inherent oneness. 

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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