There is a war between the rich and poor
A war between the man and the woman
There is a war between the left and right
A war between the black and white
A war between the odd and the even…
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
And the ones who say that there isn’t.
The lines of this Leonard Cohen song written over twenty years ago are particularly resonant today. The polarisation of views, the division of the world into simple opposites and simplistic, binary thinking is widespread, popular and concerning. Dualities make life simpler and easier to contend with: it’s black or it’s white, as another singer Bing Crosby used to croon: “Don’t mess with mister-in-between.”
I’ve been thinking about this polarisation in the context of Simchat Torah, the final parasha of the Torah reading and the resumption of the Book of Genesis.
Genesis is about the creation of day and night, light and darkness, man and woman, the great opposites. For God there is no in-between, the truth is crystal clear, perception is pellucid and perfect. For humanity however, life is imperfect, murky and messy. We struggle with the grey areas, the parev paradoxes. As much as we crave clear-cut obvious distinctions, we are constantly faced with uncomfortable, unclear situations. It’s not simply a case of we’re right and they’re wrong. They may have a case, some points of right and we may have gotten it wrong albeit unwittingly and inadvertently. The Midrash suggests that the light of creation was simply too pure and pristine for this world and God had to set it aside for the righteous to enjoy in the World to Come. This world is one of shadows and half-light and you need wisdom and courage to navigate it.
The notion that the “right” and “left” may each have valid, sustainable viewpoints is highlighted in the final words of Moshe. The verse reads: “And this is the blessing which Moses blessed Israel before his death” (33:1). It continues to list all the unique blessings he gave to each of the Tribes of Israel. So was it one unity blessing or many different tailored blessings?
The answer lies in the fact that we all share a common humanity, one common blessing, but each of us has a different way of achieving it. This then is the blessing: our capacity to accept the ‘dignity’ of our differences, to celebrate the special colour that each brings into the world.
The Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital (quoted by Rahav-Meir) brings a beautiful analogy to describe different styles and versions of Jewish communities:
“At the entrance to heaven there are twelve windows corresponding to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and each tribe’s prayers go up to heaven passing through its designated gate. If the prayers of all the tribes were the same, there would be no need for twelve different gates. But since each gate has its own path, therefore it must be that each tribe’s prayers are different. Just as the source and root of each tribe’s soul is different, so the nature of their prayers are different”
Rabbi Chaim’s words are powerful and instructive in an age of polarisation and partisan politics.
Let’s look after our gates but let’s also respect the other gateways and treat the other many coloured windows around us with as much care as we do our own.