Six months ago, along with a wide range of educators, I participated in a Unity Day planning meeting with the parents of the three boys. We spent close to an hour discussing the question, “What is Unity?” There was no consensus.
I believe that the question of achdut, unity, is at the heart of the most important Jewish issue of our time.
Unity, Disunity, and Exile
The Vilna Gaon says that to understand the meaning of exile, we need to understand death. The moment of death for an individual is when the soul leaves the body. For the nation of Israel, this parallels the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Following death, comes burial. For the nation, this parallels being driven out of the land of Israel. Exile is to the people of Israel, what the grave is to the individual body. In the grave, the body begins to decay. In exile, the nation is fractured and scattered. In the grave, the body is at the mercy of the elements, and insects. In exile, we are at the mercy of our hosts. In exile we crumble into disparate, far-flung communities. Absent the modes of transportation and communication we take for granted, for almost two millennia, Jewish communities had little if any contact with one another. The central Jewish point of reference inevitably shifted from the collective to the individual. In exile, Am Yisrael became I’m Yisrael.
Throughout the lonely night of exile, Jews never lost hope in Next Year in Jerusalem. Somehow, we knew that one day it would end, and we would go home. In fact, the Prophet Ezekiel told us how the return would unfold. Ezekiel saw exile for what it was; a giant graveyard filled with crushed, scattered bones. In a vision, God told Ezekiel to speak to the lifeless bones. Slowly bone began to move towards bone. Limbs and skeletons began to reassemble. New sinews and flesh grew, and a legion of bodies once again stood upright. This, Ezekiel was told, was the Jewish nation. Ezekiel had been granted a vision of wandering, emaciated individuals, slowly clawing their way out of the grave of exile, and returning home, to the land of Israel.
But this, Ezekiel was told, was just the first phase of the return. Jews returning to Israel; the rebuilding of a country and an infrastructure, the struggle to build an economy, to defend ourselves, and to thrive. All this was the body returning to life and regaining it’s strength. But there would be more.
Family, Unity, and Soul
There would be the restoration of the soul.
The Temple in Jerusalem was nothing remotely like a synagogue, school, yeshiva, JCC or any other Jewish institution. The Temple is the Beit Hamikdash, the Sanctified Home. The Temple is the family home of the Jewish people. The Temple represents the warm, familiar walls and furniture and memories and songs and stories and conversation that are intrinsic to the deep bonds of family. The destruction of the Temple, was more than a death in the family, it was the virtual death of the family.
The second phase of return that Ezekiel foresaw is the breathing of the soul back into the revived body. The word for this collective soul is family. Family and Jewish unity are one-in-the-same.
The Lingering Ghetto
In the course of centuries of exile, we became accustomed to a type of spiritual ghetto. Exile deadened our ability to see beyond the horizon of our own personal, material, and religious self-interest. We became walled into little worlds that closed us off, even from our own brothers and sisters. But a profound change is under way. Today we are in a transitional stage.
Clearly we have returned home; and clearly Israel is a magnificent place to live, nonetheless, in many ways, despite the fact that we are again neighbors, we are still strangers. Far too often what separates us is more stark than what connects us; our passion for what divides us runs deeper than our devotion to what binds us, and our refusal to hear, feel and consider what one another has to say is more stubborn than our commitment to love one another—despite our differences.
Three Boys, Three Families, One Reunion
What took place one year ago was more than an enormous, terrible, tragic event. It was an awakening. Those eighteen days shook and touched us at the essence of our being; at that core point where we all knew that they were our boys, because we are one family. Gil-ad, Eyal and Naftali stirred us from a slumber that had became deeper and deeper with each passing century; each persecution, each upheaval, each dream delayed. Those three boys, and those three mothers, lovingly pried our tired eyes open to a grander reality, and we began to see again in a way that hadn’t existed, seemingly, forever.
Three boys, and three mothers, were chosen to lead one family, our family. Because of their leadership, our heart is beginning to beat and pulse again; like a family that shares one home, one mission, one destiny, one heart—one soul.
We Broke It, The Parents Are Begging Us to Fix It
According to our sages, the First Temple was destroyed because of the very worst behaviors Judaism can imagine. That exile lasted seventy years. The Second Temple was destroyed because Jews hated one another. That exile would stretch on for twenty dark centuries of crippling familial estrangement. But now, particularly in Israel, reconciliation and reunion are under way.
The opportunity and the challenge of the moment, for every member of the family, is to respond and contribute to this remarkable reunion, a reunion that won’t come easy. We have been estranged for so long. We are more comfortable as adversaries than as friends. We are more at ease in the narrow confines of those who are just like us. We feel safer and more secure with people who look like us, think like us, sing like us, pray like us, dress like us, and vote like us.
What we learned last year, and what we are being asked to remember, foster and deepen, is that those days are gone. A new reality has dawned. The only question that remains for each of us is: Will I be part of strengthening the family, or will I be that stubborn, self-centered cousin who never fails to wreak havoc at every family gathering?
The time has come. The time is now. It’s all there, right in front of our eyes. Just look at the faces of those boys—Our boys.