If you wanted to travel America in the 19th century, there was only one way to do it- the railroad. At the time, large railways were a marvel of human ingenuity. Whereas in the past the only way to travel long distances was with a horse and buggy, trains offered Americans the opportunity to safely journey thousands of miles in comfort and style. The defining characteristic of traveling on the railroad was that one did so with others. Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs would ride together on the train. A long journey could take days but passengers understood that the only way to make the journey bearable was if they treated each other with tolerance and mutual respect.
Since then, things have changed. We now rarely travel on trains and when we take long trips, our primary mode of transportation is automobiles. Traveling on the train was a group experience. For as long as the journey took place, a small diverse community was formed. Riding in a car, however, is fundamentally different. In cars we forgo travelling with others in order to go it alone. On those rare occasions when we do let others ride with us, we are very careful who we choose to let in. The shift from trains to cars over the last one hundred years is symbolic of dramatic changes that have occurred in our society. Americans participate less in communal life than ever before and when we do participate, our communities tend to be made up of people that look and think and act just like us. A similar phenomenon has taken place in the Jewish community. Synagogues are clearly smaller than they have been in the past and they tend to be far more homogenous.
With these changes, we have lost something important. We have lost the solidarity that united us. This has become readily apparent in American politics. We are more polarized and divided than ever before. In his book Civility, Yale law professor Stephen Carter uses the example of the shift from trains to automobiles in order to teach a fundamental truth about contemporary life- “we care less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers.”
Riding on the train, being part of a shul, or being the citizen of a large and diverse nation is only possible if we see ourselves on some level as connected to and responsible for one another. It requires the willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good while tolerating people and ideas that we don’t like. Without this a synagogue or a nation will tear itself apart.
You may not have realized it, but on Rosh Hashanah the train is pulling up to the station once again. Soon enough, the horn will be sounding and we will all have an opportunity to hop back on. Rosh Hashanah is the one day when all Jews come to shul and sit crammed together for a long service that sometimes feels like it will take days. It serves as a tangible reminder for us and for our country that despite our different backgrounds and beliefs, we cannot live without each other, and that we will not reach our destination unless we recognize that we are all connected and we are all responsible for one another.
About 125 years ago, a month before Rosh Hashanah, the great mussar teacher, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv would get up early in the morning and post a short notice on the door of his yeshiva in Kelm. Written upon it was a simple yet critically important reminder for his students. He explained that it is all too easy to imagine that we stand before God on the Day of Judgement only as individuals, but such thinking would be in error. Only a united collective can blow the shofar and crown God as king. Recognizing God’s majesty and kingship is dependent on our ability to do so not as individuals but as a people. Rabbi Simcha Zissel argued that just as a nation requires unity to hold itself together so too do the Jewish people.
As we continue to feel the fracturing of our national politics, Rosh Hashanah is a perfect moment to reflect on what we can do to bring us all closer together. Mussar, an ethical and spiritual movement founded in the 18th century, has much to teach us regarding this matter. The mussar movement placed a central focus on interpersonal relationships and demonstrated a unique sensitivity to the ways in which our immoral behavior towards others damages spiritual life. More importantly, the mussar movement reinforced the classic Jewish notion that we are all responsible for one another. The pain and suffering of another person can only be ignored at the peril of our own soul.
For Rabbi Simcha Zissel interconnectedness is an essential feature of being human. Unlike many rabbis of his time, Rabbi Simcha Zissel studied Greek philosophy and thought there were important insights contained within the moral teachings of Aristotle, who taught that human beings are fundamentally social creatures. No individual can ever provide for all of their own needs. In order to flourish, our lives require the help and assistance of many others, and therefore all communities are built on the partnership that exists between their members. This applies whether it is a synagogue or a nation. We are all in this together, and we are all riding on the same train.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel illustrated this through showing how we are all connected on an economic level. He writes: “If for example, one person is a cobbler and makes shoes for his fellow, and another is a tailor who sews clothing for him; or another is a builder who constructs houses for him… Then they are all partners.” We all need each other, and we all depend upon each other for our lives to flourish. Because we are all so interconnected, it is essential for us to understand that our behavior deeply affects one another. The way I act towards you will inevitably be reflected back upon me.
Rabbi Simcha Zisel writes: “If we want to succeed, we must each do our own work for others faithfully, for if one makes his shoes for his fellow in a fraudulent way, his fellow will behave accordingly by making clothing that is defective, and so eventually everyone will act this way.” When we lose our sense of mutuality, we forget how quickly social and political life can deteriorate. Perhaps we simply feel that we don’t owe others anything or even worse, we see them only as a means to fulfill our own selfish needs.
It is vitally important for us to understand what creates the sense of partnership that is at the core of all communal life. Partnership is not possible without love for our fellow man because without love there cannot be a true sense of reciprocity.
Keep in mind, Rabbi Simcha Zissel did not mean love in the grand romantic sense of the word. For him, even small demonstrations of kindness and mutual respect were acts of love with powerful consequences. Perhaps even more radically, Rabbi Simcha Zissel argued that the obligation of v’ahavta l’reecha kamocha, to love your fellow as yourself, applies not just to our fellow Jews but extends to all of humanity. Historically, the Jewish tradition has often been quite particularistic in its expectations of to whom we must show love. Most rabbis argue that we must only love our fellow Jews because they are part of our family and therefore they are entitled to it.
However, Rabbi Simcha Zissel rightfully understood that the expectation to love our fellow man cannot end at the walls of our synagogue. For society to be held together, we must love all of humanity. Despite living in Easter Europe during the nineteenth century fully aware of the terrors of anti-semitism, he writes the following: “The prime foundation of a person’s life is that he instill in his heart true love for all human beings, whatever religion they may be, because the entire political community is a partnership.”
Looking out at society today, it feels that we have lost this awareness. If we want to regain a sense of partnership, we are going to have to recover that sense of love for our fellow citizens. It starts with the simple act of empathy. We must listen to each other. We must really listen to each other. Only then can we recognize that there are legitimate social, economic, and political grievances throughout our country and that partnership means we do not get dismiss others because we don’t like what they have to say.
In that notice that Rabbi Simcha Zissel posted on the door of his yeshiva the month before Rosh Hashana, he said there was one particular mitzvah that we must focus on and occupy ourselves with in the coming new year- V’ahavta L’Reecha Kamocha- We must love our fellow Jews and our fellow citizens as we love ourselves. He adds that if we show up in shul on Rosh Hashanah,
“with the sin of hating other people in our hands, how can we not be ashamed and disgraced when we seek to crown God as King and pray that his Glory should fill the entire world (sort of)… Therefore must accept upon ourselves the work of loving people and of unity… And if we merit a community that is immersed in this work during the entire year, who can measure the greatness of the merit for us and for the world?”
This notion is also reflected in the mitzvah of shofar. One can technically fulfill their obligation on their own. All one has to do is make the beracha and sound the thirty blasts. However, to fully accomplish the mitzvah of shofar, it requires the participation of others. It requires community. The Talmud concludes that the shofar must in fact be blown twice. Once before mussaf and then a second time during the mussaf amidah in the presence of a minyan. In doing so, the sound of the shofar is not in individual act but combines with the communal prayers in order to acknowledge God’s kingship and majesty.
When you hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, look at those around you. Recognize that no matter what differences may exist, we are all in this together, and we are all riding on the same train.
As Rabbi Simcha Zissel wrote, if we are able to do this, if we are able to treat each other and all our fellow citizens with love and respect then who can measure the greatness of the merit for us and for the world?