With its hundreds of breakout sessions, one can learn an incredible amount about a diverse range of topics. But that is not why I go. Sitting in the conference center and the Verizon arena with over 18,000 pro-Israel advocates is nothing short of a religious experience. The diversity in that room crosses religion, ethnicity, race, political affiliation, Jewish denomination, age, and more.
And yet, this large group of people who agree on little and in many cases have little in common, choose to put all of their differences aside and focus exclusively on what they have in common, a love and devotion to the Jewish State of Israel. I spend the conference swelling with Jewish pride and pride for what our people have accomplished in the short time we have returned to our homeland. The conference each year features Israeli innovation and technology that are changing the world. It highlights Israel’s leadership in humanitarian efforts around the world. It celebrates Israel’s values that are so closely aligned with America’s, including democracy and human rights.
I measure the conference by how many “goose bump moments” occur. Who could not be moved by Hatikvah being played by virtuoso Hagai Shaham on a repaired violin that the Nazis had forced Jews to play as they witnessed their fellow Jews march to their deaths in gas chambers. Who could not rise to their feet for the endless applause for UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as she pledged “The days of Israel-bashing are over,” adding, “We don’t have a greater friend than Israel.”
The theme for this year’s conference captured the secret to AIPAC’s effectiveness: “Many voices, one mission.” The idea of “many voices” is nothing new, but having one mission, being singularly focused on one goal, is something we don’t see often and is what makes AIPAC both special and successful. For two and a half days, nobody discusses what divides us, what makes us different, or what we can’t begin to understand about one another. AIPAC has one goal, bi-partisan support for the US-Israel relationship and for Israel’s security and military advantage, and it will not be distracted, deterred, or sidetracked from it. By focusing exclusively on one goal and creating a culture and atmosphere that won’t tolerate anyone hijacking the agenda or changing the conversation, over 18,000 very different people can feel united not only for the two and a half days, but throughout the year.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we follow this model in other areas. What if the whole Orthodox community found its common ground and we dedicated ourselves towards seeing it through, despite our differences. Imagine what could be possible if the many denominations within Judaism worked together on matters that we all agree on, without allowing our differences to deter us. Think what we could achieve.
Soon, we will all sit down at our sedarim and dip the karpas in salt water, an odd opening to a night of freedom. In his commentary on the Rambam, Rabbeinu Manoach suggests that the word karpas is closely related to pasim, the coat of many colors given to Yosef by his father Yaakov. When the enmity between Yosef and his brothers grew and they sold him into slavery, the dipped his coat in animal’s blood and presented it their father as if Yosef had been killed.
Yosef’s brothers didn’t just hate him. “V’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom,” they couldn’t even speak to him. R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra explains, “afilu l’shalom.” It isn’t just that they couldn’t talk about the issues they disagreed about. It isn’t that they didn’t want to be close, loving brothers. And it’s not that they couldn’t debate respectfully. “Afilu l’shalom” — The issue with Yosef and his brothers was they couldn’t even give each other a Shalom Aleichem. The hatred and intolerance had grown so deep that they couldn’t stand to even extend greetings to one another or to be in a room together. This expression describes a disgraceful and shameful state of affairs. They couldn’t even say “good morning,” “how are you,” or “good Shabbos” to one another, let alone attend a conference and work for a common cause together.
Rav Yehonasan Eibschitz in his Tiferes Yonasan has an additional insight on the verse in question. Translated literally, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom” means “they could not speak to him to peace.” What could that mean? Rav Eibshitz suggests that when we disagree with people, we withdraw from them and stop speaking to them. We see them as “the other,” different from us and apart from us. As our communication breaks down, the dividers rise and grow stronger and stronger.
We can never resolve conflict, find common ground, or maintain a relationship despite our differences, if we can’t even have conversation between us. Had Yosef and his brothers been talking, he might have communicated how he felt isolated and alone, and they might have explained how his tattle-telling and the favoritism their father displayed toward him were very painful to them. However, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom.” They weren’t talking at all, so they couldn’t use speech to achieve peace, or even just civility, between them.
We begin our seder, our night of freedom and liberation from bondage, by remembering what started it all, how we found ourselves in Egypt to begin with and the source of our slavery and suffering. Sinas chinam, baseless hatred, intolerance, and animosity landed us in Egypt and, if we don’t want to find ourselves metaphorically back there again, we best learn the lesson of the dipping of the karpas and kesones pasim.
To be clear, there are important things we disagree about and there are times, places, and platforms to explore those differences and debate them. However, if we spew venom and rhetoric at one another, look to find fault, pursue our agenda in a militant fashion without respect for other views, if we try to marginalize those we don’t like or agree with, we can never come together on the things we do have in common. AIPAC proves that when we want to, we can maintain our many voices, but still pursue one mission, but everything begins with being able to communicate b’shalom, peacefully and civilly.