Papers in My Pockets

By Robert Lichtman

Rabbi Simcha Bunim suggests that we put a scrap of paper in each of two pockets. One says “The world was created just for me.” The other, “I am nothing but dust and ash.” When I feel insignificant, I am reminded that the world awaits me. When I feel smug and satisfied, I am set straight. These are prompts to awaken me, not to validate my feelings, but to challenge them.

Centuries earlier, Hillel provoked us with questions that could easily become another pair of papers for our pockets. One asks “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” The other, “If I am only for myself, what kind of person am I?” Each note has his third question on the back, “If not now, when?”

Despite these papers in my pockets, there is another notion etched upon my heart. “Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh ba’zeh – All Jews are interdependent, every one with every other one.” So when I read of a new paradigm for viewing “Jewish Peoplehood” (eJP, “The Age of Local Jewish Peoplehood is Here,” October 2) which seems to suggest atomizing the Jewish People into fixed segments of “local” Jews who promote Tikkun Olam, and Israeli Jews who focus on “Jewish solidarity,” my heart skips a beat – not from infatuation but as an arrhythmia. The concept of compartmentalizing the Jewish People into local and global camps defined by political boundaries is an anathema to the aspirational goal of Oneness in pursuit of that Godly trait. And confining the limits of any group’s vision to a singular, even noble purpose is simplistic and contrary to the multiple tugs that act upon us – wherever we live – as the challenges voiced in Hillel’s pocket papers demonstrate.

I find that I am pulling out Hillel’s papers these days, both of them, and often. As a Jew, what are my obligations to assist other Jews who are collapsing emotionally, spiritually, financially, physically? As a Jew, what are my obligations to a world whose toxic breath is sickening and killing people everywhere? By applying Hillel’s third question – the urgency of now – he is not posing an either/or dilemma, but an and/both directive. We enter 5781 with the unprecedented and profound sense of interdependence not only among our Jewish family but with all humanity. I am not sure what God is saying, but I am sure of what I am hearing; that what I do literally impacts the lives of strangers and that my very life depends upon my Jewish family as well as strangers – locally and globally – and I need to act in both spheres, now.

Unfortunately, tragically, there is a segment of Jews, “locally and globally,” who apparently value only the “me” side of the equation, who deny the science baked into the world by God and defy efforts to save their lives and to protect those around them, spreading a plague which, like the concept of “Kol Yisrael,” transcends political boundaries. And just as the proposed local versus global formulation discounts this entire population, we might be tempted to do the same, to dismiss them – locally and globally.

But we cannot. Because we have another pair of papers.

On one paper, the words “Ahavat Chinam – Baseless Love,” is written, but the words are crossed out. Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook anticipated that we might be tempted to redress the grave sin of Sinat Chinam – the Baseless Hatred among Jews that led to the Temple’s destruction, with the antidote of Baseless Love. However, he writes, “There is no such thing as ‘Baseless Love.’ Why baseless? This other person is a Jew, and I am obligated to honor him. There is only ‘Baseless Hatred’ – but ‘Baseless Love?’ No!”

I am commanded to love all Jews, but at times like this it is hard. Yet, I need to try, to work at it. It is a difficult thing to command to love all Jews, just as it is strange to compel a love of God. Indeed, that, too is an obligation – “V’Ahavta et Hashem Elokecha – You shall love the Lord, your God…” God knows the human heart. God knows that love cannot be commanded. V’Ahavta is the future form of loving – over time, perhaps over a lifetime, you will come to love God. That ambition of love is also the path towards fulfilling the obligation of loving all Jews. I may not feel that way today, but I am no less obligated to keep at it and to develop that love over time.

That final Rav Kook note is paired with this from our Torah, “Do not hate your brother in your heart, rather reprove your people…” If we truly love others, we do not keep silent while they engage in behavior that is not only self-destructive, but whose harm has no bounds. The choice of words, “reprove amitecha (your nation-people)” means that even as I reproach my brother or sister, I need to act out of love, for they are my people. This Torah language of “Peoplehood” is the very language that Ruth used to bind her destiny to Naomi, to enter into the covenant we still carry as their descendants. This love, too, takes us back to where we began.

Jews are not one-dimensional. Jews are neither local nor global. A “pluralistic interpretation of Peoplehood” does not only apply to our respect for a variety of groups; it applies to respecting the different, sometimes conflicting, sometimes coherent aspects within every individual. Boundaries are artificial. Boundaries are temporal. Boundaries are divisive. Judaism and our fragile yet sacred Peoplehood are the opposite of all that.

And we have the papers to prove it.

Robert Lichtman is the Chief Jewish Learning Officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.