If unity were easy, everyone would be practicing it. If it didn’t require compromise, concession or cooperation, it wouldn’t be such a big deal to call for unity. Unity, achdus, is difficult and challenging, and practicing it can sometimes feel lonely.
Our tradition states clearly that the main cause of God’s withdrawal from His Beis Ha’Mikdash and the source of the harsh exile we have suffered is the divisiveness and discord found among our people. For close to two thousand years, we have experienced pogroms, persecution, oppression, hatred, relentless anti-Semitism and a systematic attempt to exterminate our entire nation. Throughout those two millennia, we have been reminded over and over again that the main barrier and obstacle to finally ending all of our suffering and heralding a Messianic era characterized by peace and tranquility is simply our inability to learn how to get along and be respectful of one another.
Can we really blame Hashem for retreating from being around us, His children, when we can’t get along with one another Do we as parents not demand from our children that they practice loyalty towards one another, and be minimally respectful and accepting of each other, despite any differences they may have?
God Himself provided us with the tool that is to be the solution. Torah was given as a great unifier, a vision and set of values that we can all rally behind and embrace as one united community. We, as a nation of 2 to 3 million, received the Torah ‘k’ish echad b’leiv echad,’ as one person with one heart.
We recite in birchas ha’Torah “asher bachar banu mi’kol ha’amim, v’nasan lanu es Toraso, God chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah.” Becoming a nation and feeling a sense of peoplehood and community preceded receiving the Torah and, indeed, was a prerequisite to it. Authentic and genuine Torah in our time must be learned, observed and practiced with a deep sense of commitment to the wholeness, unity, health and well being of our people.
Therefore, it is a great comfort that as we mournfully count down the remaining few hours to Tisha B’av, we can eagerly anticipate a monumental milestone event that will follow it closely, namely the Siyum Ha’Shas. Ninety thousand men, women and children will fill Met Life Stadium in New York and hundreds of thousands more will join via internet to celebrate around the world in a great display of kavod ha’Torah, respect and honor for our sacred tradition as Shas, the six orders of Talmud, is completed.
Before Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos of consolation even arrives, the Siyum Ha’Shas should be just the soothing salve we need to heal the wounds and aches of Tisha B’av. As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Shalom Baum, pointed out to me, on Tisha B’av we will sit on the floor mourning the public burning of hundreds of volumes of the Talmud in France and Italy centuries ago. Just a few days later, we will affirm the vibrancy, vitality and relevancy of that same Talmud at the completion of its study in a similarly very public manner.
There is so much to celebrate and take pride in regarding the Siyum Ha’Shas. Jews of varied backgrounds, levels of observance and world outlook will attend the siyum together. Diverse Roshei Yeshiva and Talmidei Chachamim will sit on the dais, and a video that includes OU (Orthodox Union) Rabbis Steven Weil and Moshe Elefant will be shown. Thousands will gain entry into the exclusive club of “shas yidden,” those who have completed every single folio page of Talmud. Thousands more will be finishing shas for a second or third time, and yet thousands more will begin the marathon of the next seven and a half year journey through the sea of Talmud.
To be sure, there are wonderful stories and profiles surrounding the Siyum Ha’Shas. But sadly, other stories are emerging that, rather than reflect the spirit of unity and togetherness that we desperately need, tell the continued tale of the divisiveness and conflict that caused Tisha B’av to begin with. A prominent Chassidishe Rebbe has forbidden his flock from attending the siyum at MetLife since Zionist Rabbis, such as former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, will address the audience.
Admirably, a mechitza that costs six figures is being built for this three hour event to make sure that all segments of the Torah community feel comfortable attending. But, in contrast, how much energy and how many resources have been allocated to market and explain this monumental event to the unaffiliated and to help the uninitiated feel invited and welcome as well?
In addition, an alternative “Modern Orthodox” Siyum Ha’Shas has been arranged, and its organizers claim it will reflect a different perspective and approach than the one at Met Life Stadium. Like a lightning rod, this alternative Siyum has attracted immediate controversy, so much so that two prominent speakers who were to address the alternative Siyum have withdrawn from the program.
As we approach the Siyum Ha’Shas, the Torah community has much to be proud of. Deep appreciation and gratitude must be expressed to Agudas Yisroel and their leadership who have worked tirelessly to organize an incredible event that in so many ways is a great Kiddush Hashem. My words are not intended in any way as an indictment against them, God forbid.
But, I believe that if we really long for the geulah, the redemption, and yearn for the Messianic era, the entire width and breadth of the Torah community must ask ourselves – do the values of community, people hood and the unity of Torah not supersede our personal sensitivities and interests? Many may feel: “The program is not designed specifically the way I would want it and it doesn’t include exactly the speakers I would prefer. Attending and supporting it would take compromise and concession on my part.” My response is simple – doesn’t creating unity among diverse people always require conciliation, and isn’t it well worth it?
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos states, “Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon omeir, shnayim she’yoshvim v’ein beineihem divrei Torah, harei zeh moshav leitzim, if two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, it is a session of scorners.” Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht z’l, my revered Rosh Yeshiva at Kerem B’Yavneh, explained this Mishna in a creative fashion. The two people the Mishna describes are chavrusos, study partners. They are engaged in Torah learning. So how can it be described as a moshav leitzim, a session of scorners? Rav Goldvicht explained because for these two people, the Torah is not beineihem, it doesn’t bring them together and unify them. Yes, they are learning Torah, but the Torah is not transforming them into more thoughtful, caring people connected to one another.
Rav Meir Shapiro z’l introduced the idea of Daf Yomi so that all Jews, no matter where they are found in the world, would literally be on the same page. Celebration of the Daf in particular, and commitment to Torah in general should bring us together in a united fashion and help put us on the same page, not divide us, God forbid.
As we approach yet another Tisha B’av and bemoan the Jewish condition in the world, let’s pledge to improve ourselves by doing more to care for our fellow Jews. Unity doesn’t come easy. It takes work and it usually requires compromise.
May the Siyum Ha’Shas not only inspire us to learn more and, for those who can, strive to commit to go through the entire shas, But, even more importantly, let us strive to have shas go through us and bring about the unity for our people that is the necessary prerequisite for bringing Moshiach.