Is Unity Even Possible in This Day and Age? – Parshat Vayehi


“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” – Gwendolyn Brooks

It’s All in the Family

Shy to begin with, I found it a little embarrassing when I first started going to Orthodox Jewish weddings; right off the bat, people mistook me for being related to the bride or groom.  As soon as I would walk into the room, strangers would approach and genuinely wish me, “Mazel tov!”  “Um, thanks,” I would mumble, “but um, I’m not related to the families.  I’m just a guest.”  If anything, I am underdressed for posh affairs; I own no formal clothes and, nothing in my closet remotely passes for glamorous.  I would have to upgrade my attire if I were a close relative.  So why did this case of mistaken identity persist?   

Some of you may be laughing, as you understand the cause of my “newbie confusion.”  You see, in Orthodox weddings, and celebrations of any kind, everyone wishes everyone else, “Mazel tov,” because the Jewish people are considered to be one big extended family.  In my younger years, I experienced a sense of liberation and even personal power when I coined my definition of “family,” as those who felt pain if I were suffering, and joy if I were happy.  At celebrations, we remind each other – and ourselves – of this reality; your happiness is my happiness, and we share this collectively.

Whether it’s the solemn witnessing of the mystical transformation of two souls seeking to merge as one or the happiness we feel dancing hand in hand in packed circles that form and re-form like a pulsing gyroscope, for a moment, an hour or even a few, the many become as one.  Rabbi Tzvi Freeman explains that there are many ways for the “many to become one” – such as marching to war or for a cause, going crazy at a concert, throwing rocks at a protest, or wildly cheering one’s team to victory.  On these occasions, we are united by something external; We are going somewhere, protesting someone or something, or we lose identity through an extrinsic force.  In contrast, says Freeman, “In the circle, there is no cause, no reason, no enemy and nowhere we are going. We are just one. Because we are.”  

Life Cycles

This week was one particularly saturated with funerals, shiva calls, and their polar opposite – a wedding celebration and a bris.  At one of the houses of mourning, I heard a story about two students, who are studying in Israel.  Upon hearing the news of their grandfather’s death, they became distraught and started to cry.  A stranger came up to them and, when he found out what was distressing them, he brought them cups of tea and proceeded to talk to them about birth and death and spent time with them offering words of comfort.  In her book, “Braving the Wilderness,” Brené Brown writes: “We need to hold hands with strangers. We need reminders – collective joy and pain – reminders that we are inextricably connected to each other.”

The term “Klal Yisroel” literally means “all of Israel” and as such it refers to the Jewish people as a whole; however, its deeper meaning is that despite individual and group diversity, we share a communal identity and destiny, where we celebrate and mourn as one.  In Israel, weddings are often open affairs.  Here, we call them wedding crashers, but over there, it’s more like an open tent policy.  At the same time, it’s just as common for “strangers” to show up at funerals and to offer condolences at houses of mourning.  When my daughter spent a gap year studying in Israel, it was not unusual for large groups of girls from her school to go in groups to pay their respects.  “Mom,” my daughter simply said. “you just go.” 

When I was visiting another family in mourning this week, one of the sons acknowledged that while the four siblings had their share of squabbles and issues over the years, at the time of their mother’s death, they were all united as one, gathered around her bedside, escorting her in song and prayers to the next world.  After he spoke, his sister tearfully begged the family to stay as one – to comfort and support each in the weeks and months to come as they had to come to grips with the loss of the matriarch of the family who held them as one. 

When Unity is Not the Real Deal

I have seen and experienced families, communities and the Jewish people rise to the occasion in solidarity, only to fall back into divisive and polarized factions.   How can we hold onto the lofty ideals of unity and connection as operative principles in our daily lives?   Just as peak emotional moments are not sustainable, the solidarity we may feel in times of crisis, disasters, terror attacks, etc., is situational and temporary.  During calamities, we instinctively help our fellow man – without asking who he or she voted for.  Afterwards, we go back to life as usual – the neighbor becomes the stranger, and we retreat into the proverbial “us and them.”  Unity based on fear of hatred of a common enemy is not genuine, and when it’s situational (for good or bad), it is not sustainable.  How, then, does unity endure?

When It Is

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, Jacob dies.  Surrounding him at his deathbed, are his sons – all of them, whom as we know, had some serious baggage.  Jacob had received a prophetic vision in which he was how the future would unfold, including the “end of days.” When Jacob wanted to relay revelation to his sons, however, the vision was no longer accessible to him.  Somewhat frightened, Jacob asked his sons whether there was any negativity within them, which was blocking the signal, so to speak, to which the sons replied in unison, “Shema Yisroel, Hashem, Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad – Hear O’Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  And Jacob answered, “Boruch Shem kavod malchuso, l’olam voed – Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.” This is the exact moment where the Torah teaches us the Shema, the “Jewish mantra,” which we recite daily and, if we able, right before we die.   

God is One, the ultimate Unity.  Created in God’s image, our mission in life is to emulate our Creator, and it’s the struggle of a lifetime to unify ourselves – in the service of God.  Just as Jacob gave each of his sons distinct and individual blessings, we are unique and we are to serve God in our singular capacities.  That’s a tall order, but it’s not enough.  The next time we read the words of the Shema in the Torah is when Moses teaches them to the second generation shortly before his death and their crossing over into the Land of Israel.  As the Jewish people were about to leave the cocoon of the desert and spread out over the land, Moses was exhorting them to remember that God is One and therefore, they must also strive to be as one – within themselves and within the nation, Klal Yisroel, as a whole. Like the slogan Three Musketeers, the nature of the Jewish people is covenantal: All for one and one for all.  United we stand, divided we fall.” This requires a deep awareness of the unity and connection that at times requires self-sacrifice, displacing one’s ego, and the openhearted generosity of unconditional love.   Brené Brown brings this idea home with these words: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”

When I was at the bris this week, a friend of mine introduced her adult son to me, a newbie unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish customs.  For fun, I greeted him with a hearty, “Mazel tov!”  Unlike the way I used to respond, he did not correct me, perhaps as he knew that I did not think he related to the family celebrating this birth.  But I could read in his “deer in the headlight” eyes and the thought bubble above his head that was probably something like: “Seriously?  What is it with this lady?”  “It’s OK, kid,” I beamed back telepathically, “You’ll find out soon enoughWelcome to the family.” 


Why Jews Dance in Circles