D’var Torah: Civility required for survival

 

This year marks a wonderful milestone, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. But even as we celebrate such a remarkable and welcome time in our history we cannot help but be concerned at the tenuous position in which Israel constantly finds itself. We all hope that one day soon we will merit a state where we can all live perpetually in peace, harmony and tranquility.

The Talmud teaches us that the second Temple was ruined because our ancestors failed to act civilly towards each other and the time of the messiah will come when we ultimately learn to correct that flaw. There is a concept of midah kineged midah — that consequences must be in proportion to the deed. It would seem, though, that the loss of the holy Temple and with it our entire homeland for thousands of years was disproportionate to the deed. Is mere incivility so great a crime that it should cause us to lose our beloved country?

Rabbi David Korngold

It is a basic, fundamental principle in Judaism that in order to survive the Jewish people require achdut, togetherness. It is our identity as Jews that creates our support for one another and our sense of community. Without achdut, we are nothing more than random people strewn throughout the world. It is not an overstatement to say achdut is what separates us from the rest of the world. It reminds me of a story that spread around the Catskill Mountains when I was young: two yeshivah bochurim, devout seminary students, were hitchhiking (not to condone it of course), trying to get to the famous resort in Woodbourne, New York, when an older gentleman stopped his car and gave them a ride. As he was driving he reached into the glove compartment and to their surprise, pulled out a yarmulke. “Are you Jewish?” one of the boys asked, to which he replied, “Not at all, but if I ever break down on the side of the road, all I have to do is put this on and I know someone will stop to help me.”

Once we see how vital and indispensable achdut is to our faith, upon deeper inspection, we can also understand why incivility caused us to lose our homeland. That we will not always agree, is simply a part of life, but incivility itself does not stem from disagreement because incivility does nothing to help someone explain their point. Instead, incivility conveys an entirely different point: contempt, not for an idea or an opinion but for the opponent themselves. This, of course, inevitably leads to a breakdown in unity where supporters of each faction ultimately find themselves completely incompatible with those on the “other” side.

The one place we should have been able to find achdut, was in our homeland of Israel 2,000 years ago. Once G-d found that even in our own country we were rife with infighting and partisan politics, we became unworthy of the privilege of living in the land of Israel. This is truly midah kineged midah because when we could not find unity in our own country we were dispersed throughout the nations of the world and had to learn to maintain our unity under far more difficult circumstances.

I have the distinct privilege and honor of recently becoming the rabbi at Congregation Anshai Lebowitz. While it is one of the oldest synagogues in the Milwaukee area, it most certainly is anything but old-fashioned. The congregants are vibrant and progressive with such an overwhelming sense of unity and inclusivity that they created a sanctuary where people of all backgrounds and all denominations can feel comfortable. At Anshai Lebowitz people from Orthodox to Reform and even those who are unaffiliated, can and do come together to pray in harmony and friendship.

This shining example of achdut, especially at a time when civility in public discourse is at such a premium, is a truly great accomplishment and a tremendous contribution towards our goal to raise the level of discourse in society. May we all merit a wonderful New Year with much joy, success, happiness, and, of course, nachas, and perhaps next year we can all celebrate together in Jerusalem.

Rabbi David Korngold is the spiritual leader of Congregation Anshai Lebowitz in Mequon.