Friday, May 22, 2020

Yom Yerushalayim: Diversity & Unity

Diversity & Unity
Thoughts on Yom Yerushalayim 2020
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“Pray for Jerusalem’s peace; May your lovers rest tranquil!” (Tehilim 122:6) King David’s mention of peace and tranquility with regards to Jerusalem is telling. Jerusalem transcends its mere confines of place and location. It represents harmony and agreement. The Hakhamim thus refer to Jerusalem as “the city which makes all of Israel friends.”[1] It is the city of unity.

Consider, for a moment, the scene in Jerusalem on the three regalim. Throughout the days of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot, the streets and alleys of the city were filled with the many people of Am Yisrael. Men and women of all stripes and colors gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the holidays together.

Focusing on Am Yisrael’s unity is perhaps most appropriate at this time of the year, in our preparation for Shavuot. The Hakhamim envisioned the nation’s unity as the prerequisite to receiving the Torah. Am Yisrael’s encampment “as one person, with one heart” demonstrated their readiness for the Torah.[2]

But is unity actually a virtue? Consider the Torah’s description of the time in history when humanity was completely unified:
And all the earth was one language, one set of words. (Bereshit 11:1)
It would appear, at first glance, as if things couldn’t get better than that state of unity! And yet, that time is forever remembered as a period of utter destruction. It began the episode known to us now as Migdal Bavel:
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (Bereshit 11:4)
Surprisingly, the people’s unity drove them away from growth, leading them instead to an attempted rebellion against God. “With everyone given over to the one common way, there would be mass identity and mass consciousness,” Leon Kass wrote, “but no private identity or true self-consciousness; there would be shoulder-shoulder but no real face-to-face.”[3] In the absence of conflicting thoughts and opinions, without disagreements, the people couldn’t discover the error in their ways.

Think about how this reality rings true in your own life. We dread the discomfort of being confronted by a friend or peer regarding a mistaken thought or character flaw. But how could we develop without ever being challenged? Our decisions would be determined solely by our own thoughts and feelings! And there would be little or no room for change. We could never grow.

And God said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, lets us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” (Bereshit 11:6-7)
God secured the future of humanity by dividing them! “Discovering the partiality of one’s own truths and standards invites the active search for truths and standards beyond one’s making,” Leon Kass wrote, “Opposition is the key to the discovery of the distinction between error and truth…between that which is appears to be and that which truly is.”[4]

Is Jerusalem’s feature of “unity,” then, a matter to rejoice about? Perhaps, instead, it is a dangerous aspect to avoid at all costs!

I believe that the nature of Jerusalem’s particular “unity” is fundamentally different than that of Migdal Bavel.

The Rabbis taught that “Jerusalem wasn’t divided amongst the tribes.”[5] Whereas the Land of Israel was generally zoned according to the twelve shevatim, Jerusalem was left open to all. The concept of this structure seems to be an embrace of diversity – through the division of the larger country, while at once maintaining a particular unity at the center – in the undivided city of Jerusalem.

Indeed, R. Yisshak Hutner z”l pointed out that God demonstrated two divergent realities when He began humanity with a single person. On the one hand, it reflected a particular unity. Humankind’s shared ancestry means that we are all related to one another. On the other hand, however, that single starting point highlighted the spark of individuality inherent in each of us. The life of every person is significant, irrespective of their society or community.[6] Human existence, then, was born with a dichotomy which equally stresses the equal importance of unity and diversity.

Consider the structure of most successful organizations. The general direction and mission are clearly stated. Everyone must agree to work in unison toward their realization. That is Jerusalem. But the particular method or approach to reaching that end is open to different vantage points and expressions. There are, for that reason, separate departments and specific committees. That is the surrounding Land of Israel.

Jerusalem, “the city of peace and tranquility,” calls our attention to national unity. It reminds us that although our growth is owed to an embrace of diversity, we remain unified in purpose. Rising above all conflict and disagreement, the city of Jerusalem is a constant reminder that “all of Israel is friends.”

[1] Talmud Yerushalmi: Hagigah 2:6.
[2] See Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 19, s.v. va-yihan.
[3] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL, 2003), pg. 235.
[4] Kass, pg. 238.
[5] Yoma 12a.
[6] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Shavuot (Brooklyn, NY, 2002), pg. 132.