“If a person takes a bundle of reeds, he cannot break them all at once. But taken one at a time, even an infant will break them. Just so, Israel will not be redeemed until they are all one bundle.”
(Midrash Tanhuma, Nitzavim, Chapter 1)
Throughout the history of the Jewish people, unity and mutual guarantee (otherwise known as mutual responsibility) have been the emblems of our nation. Countless sages and spiritual leaders have written about the significance of these two trademarks, hailing them as the heart and soul of our nation, and declaring that salvation and redemption can arrive only when there is unity in Israel.
In fact, the concept of unity has been so preeminent, it has exceeded that of devotion to the Creator and the observance of commandments. A considerable number of Jewish spiritual leaders and sacred texts throughout the generations stress the importance of unity above all else. Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta, written at approximately the same time as the Talmud, is one of numerous statements in that spirit: “Even when Israel worship idols and there is peace among them, the Lord says, ‘I have no wish to harm them.’ …But if they are disputed, what is it that is said about them? ‘Their heart is divided; now they will bear their guilt.’”[i]
After the ruin of the Second Temple, the preeminence of unity and brotherly love peaked. The Babylonian Talmud, among many other sources, teaches us that the reason why the Second Temple was ruined was unfounded hatred and divisiveness within Israel. The sources even declare that unfounded hatred is so harmful, it equals the impact of the three great evils that caused the ruin of the First Temple, put together: idolatry, incest, and bloodshed. Masechet Yoma teaches us that lesson very clearly: “The Second Temple … why was it ruined? It was because there was unfounded hatred in it, teaching you that unfounded hatred is equal to all three transgressions—idolatry, incest, and bloodshed—combined.”[ii]
Evidently, unity, brotherhood, and mutual guarantee are not only in the DNA of our nation, they are the substance of the lifeline that has spared us afflictions when we had them, and allowed for afflictions to unfold when we did not. In these trying times of distended self-entitlement and narcissism, we need unity more than ever, yet it seems more inaccessible than at any time in history.
Some thirty-four centuries ago, at the foot of Mount Sinai, we stood as one man with one heart, and by so doing we became a nation. Since then, unity has sustained us through rain and shine, as renowned preacher and writer, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, describes in his acclaimed composition, Maor va Shemesh (Light and Sun): “Although the generation of Ahab were idol worshippers, they engaged in war and won because there was unity among them. It is even more so when there is unity in Israel and they engage in Torah for Her sake … By that, they subdue all who are against them, and everything they say with their mouths, the Lord grants their wishes.”[iii]
Following Moses, we came to Canaan, conquered it, made it The Land of Israel, and then were exiled once again. Subsequently, a handful of the nation—barely two of the original twelve tribes—returned to the land and established the Second Temple. But because we could not maintain our brotherly love, we were eventually overwhelmed by the enemy and were exiled for centuries to come.
Yet, division and unfounded hatred, which caused the ruin of the Second Temple and the exile of the nation from its land, did not arrest our development while in exile. Through much of the last two or so millennia, we kept to ourselves, maintaining relative separation from the cultural life of the nations in which we resided.
But roughly since the time of the Enlightenment, we have gradually adopted a culture that hails personal distinction and individual achievement, and condones exploitation of the weak and needy. In the last several decades, we have so excelled at the culture of self-interest and self-entitlement that as a society, we have become the complete opposite of the caring and humane community we nurtured at the onset of our nation.
In today’s world, the reigning tone and atmosphere are of self-entitlement and egotism to the point of narcissism. In their insightful book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, psychologists Jean M. Twenge and Keith Campbell describe what they refer to as “The relentless rise of narcissism in our culture,”[iv] and the problems it causes. They explain that “The United States is currently suffering from an epidemic of narcissism. …narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity.”
Worse yet, they continue, “The rise in narcissism is accelerating, with scores rising faster in the 2000s than in previous decades. By 2006, one out of four college students agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits.”[v]
And the majority of us Jews, progenitors of the tenet, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not only sit by and watch as egotism celebrates, but also join the party, many of us even leading the pack, taking spoils wherever we can. We have embraced the maxim, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” with spectacular enthusiasm, and by so doing, many Jewish names have become synonymous with wealth and power. There is no doubt that we do not pursue wealth and power to present our heritage as superior to those of others. However, when Jews gain notoriety for the above two distinctions, they are noted not only for their gains, but also for their heritage.
As unfair as it may seem, Jews and the Jewish state are not viewed in the same manner as are other countries and nations. They are treated as special, both positively and negatively.
But there is a good reason why this is so. When Abraham discovered the singular force that leads the world, the one we refer to as “the Creator,” “God,” HaShem, HaVaYaH (Yod–Hey–Vav–Hey, the “Lord”), he wished to tell the whole world about it. As a Babylonian of high social and spiritual status, the son of a maker of idols and statues, he was in a position to be heard. It was only when King Nimrod tried to kill him and later expelled him from Babylon that he went elsewhere, eventually arriving at Canaan.
Yet, Rav Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) describes how all along the way he kept looking for soul mates with whom he could share his discovery: “He began to call out to the whole world, to alert them that there is one God to the whole world… He was calling out, wandering from town to town and from kingdom to kingdom, until he arrived in the land of Canaan… And since they [people in the places where he wandered] gathered around him and asked him about his words, he taught everyone…until he brought them back to the path of truth. Finally, thousands and tens of thousands assembled around him, and they are the people of ‘the house of Abraham.’ He planted this tenet in their hearts, composed books about it, and taught his son, Isaac. And Isaac sat, and taught, warned, and informed Jacob, and appointed him a teacher, to sit and teach… And Jacob the Patriarch taught all his sons, and separated Levi and appointed him the head, and had him sit and learn the way of God…”[vi]
From Jacob onward, narrates the renowned composition, The Kozari, “Godliness is revealed in an assembly, and since then is the count by which we count the years of the ancestors, according to what was given to us in Moses’ law [Torah], and we know what unfolded since Moses to this day.”[vii]
Thus, unity became a condition for attaining the perception of God, or the Creator—as Kabbalists often refer to Him (for reasons we will not detail here, as it is beyond the scope of this book). Without unity, attainment was simply impossible. Those who were able to unite became the people of Israel and attained the Creator, the singular force that creates, governs, and leads the whole of reality. Those who weren’t able to do so remained without that perception, yet with a sense that the Israelites knew something that they did not, and had something that belonged to them, as well, but that they could not have.
This is the root of the hatred of Israel, which later became anti-Semitism. It is a feeling that the Jews have something that they aren’t sharing with the world, but which they must.
Indeed, the Jews must share it with the world. Just as Abraham tried to share his discovery with all his fellow Babylonians, the Jews, his descendants, must do the same. This is the meaning of being “A light for the nations.” This is the obligation to which the great Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, referred in his eloquent, poetic style when he wrote, “The genuine movement of the Israeli soul at its grandest is expressed only by its sacred, eternal force, which flows within its spirit. It is that which has made it, is making it, and will make it still a nation that stands as a light unto nations, as redemption and salvation to the entire world for its own specific purpose, and for the global purposes, which are interlinked.”[viii]
This commitment is also that to which Rav Yehuda Leib Arie Altar referred with his words, “The children of Israel are guarantors in that they received the Torah in order to correct the whole world, the nations, too.”[ix]
And what exactly is it that we are obliged to pass on to the nations? It is unity, through which one discovers life’s unique, singular creating force, the Lord, or God. In the words of Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, author of Shem MiShmuel [A Name Out of Samuel], “The aim of Creation was for all to be one association … But because of the sin, the matter became so spoiled that even the best in those generations were unable to unite together to serve the Lord, but were a few, alone.”[x]
For this reason, continues Rabbi Bornstein, only those who could unite did so, while the rest parted from them until they were able to join the unity. In his words, “The correction began with making a gathering and association of people to serve the Creator, beginning with Abraham the Patriarch and his descendents, so they would be a consolidated community for the work of God. His [the Creator’s] idea in separating people was that first He caused separation in the human race, at the time of Babylon, and all the evildoers were dispersed. …Subsequently began the gathering in order to serve the Creator, as Abraham the Patriarch went and called by the name of the Lord until a great community gathered toward him, who had been called ‘the people of the house of Abraham.’ The matter continued to grow until it became the assembly of the congregation of Israel … and the end of correction will be in the future, when everyone becomes one association in order to do Your will wholeheartedly.”[xi]
Considering the current global circumstances, it seems urgent that everyone know about the concept of unity as a means of attaining the Creator. Once all of us know and accept that tenet, peace and brotherhood will naturally prevail.
In fact, according to renowned Kabbalist, Rav Yehuda Ashlag, known as Baal HaSulam [Owner of the Ladder] for his Sulam [Ladder] commentary on The Book of Zohar, the need to know the Creator has been urgent for almost a century now. In “Peace in the World,” an essay dating back to the early 1930s, Baal HaSulam explains that because we are all interdependent, we must apply the laws of mutual guarantee to the entire world. While the term, “globalization,” was not as ubiquitous in treatises of his time, his words clearly illustrate his urgent need to make the world a single, solidified unit.
Here is Baal HaSulam’s description of globalization and interdependence: “Do not be surprised if I mix together the well-being of a particular collective with the well-being of the whole world, because indeed, we have already come to such a degree that the whole world is considered one collective and one society. That is, because each person in the world draws one’s life’s marrow and livelihood from all the people in the world, one is coerced to serve and care for the well-being of the entire world.
“…Therefore, the possibility of making good, happy, and peaceful conducts in one country is inconceivable when it is not so in all the countries in the world, and vice versa. In our time, the countries are all linked in the satisfaction of their needs of life, as individuals were in their families in earlier times. Therefore, we can no longer speak or deal with just conducts that guarantee the well-being of one country or one nation, but only with the well-being of the whole world because the benefit or harm of each and every person in the world depends and is measured by the benefit of all the people in the world.”[xii]
However, for the world to achieve that unity, that mutual guarantee, it needs a role model, a group or collective that can implement unity, attain the Creator, and by personal example, pave the way for the rest of humankind. Because we Jews had already been at that point, and the world subconsciously feels it, it is our duty to rekindle that brotherly love among us, attain that singular force, and pass on both the method of unity and the attainment of the Creator to the rest of the world. This is the role of the Jews: to bring the light of the Creator to the world, to be a light to the nations.
In “The Love of God and the Love of Man,” Baal HaSulam clearly describes that modus operandi: “The Israeli nation has been established as a transition. To the same extent that Israel themselves are purified by keeping the Torah [the law (of unity), which we said in the introduction was a precondition for attainment of the Creator], they pass on their power to the rest of the nations. And when the rest of the nations also sentence themselves to a scale of merit [unite and attain the Creator], the Messiah [the force that pulls us out of egoism] will be revealed.”[xiii]
Rav Yehuda Altar similarly describes the role of Jews in regard to the rest of the nations: “It would seem that the children of Israel, the recipients of the Torah, are the borrowers and not the guarantors, except that the children of Israel became responsible for the correction of the entire world by the power of the Torah. This is why it was said to them, ‘And you will be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ …And it is to that that they replied, ‘That which the Lord has said, we shall do’—correct the whole of Creation. …In truth, everything depends on the children of Israel. As much as they correct themselves, all creations follow them. As the students follow the rav [teacher] who corrects himself … similarly, the whole of Creation follows the children of Israel.”[xiv]
[i] Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta, Chapter 9.
[ii] Masechet Yoma, p 9b.
[iii] Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, Maor va Shemesh (Light and Sun), Parashat (Portion) Balak
[iv] Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2009), 1.
[v] Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, 1-2.
[vi] Rav Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Torah, a.k.a. Yad HaChazakah (The Mighty Hand)), Part 1, “The Book of Science,” Chapter 1, Item 3.
[vii] Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, The Kozari, “First Essay,” item 31, 60.
[viii] HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, Letters of the RAAIAH 3 (Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1950), 194-195.
[ix] Yehuda Leib Arie Altar (ADMOR of Gur), Sefat Emet [Language of Truth], Parashat Yitro [Portion, Jethro], TARLAZ (1876).
[x] Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, Shem MiShmuel [A Name Out of Samuel], Haazinu [Give Ear], TARAP (1920).
[xii] Rav Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), The Writings of Baal HaSulam, “Peace in the World” (Ashlag Research Institute, Israel, 2009), 464-5.
[xiii] Rav Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), The Writings of Baal HaSulam, “The Love of God and the Love of Man” (Ashlag Research Institute, Israel, 2009), 486.
[xiv] Yehuda Leib Arie Altar (ADMOR of Gur), Sefat Emet [Language of Trut], Parashat Yitro [Portion, Jethro], TARLAZ (1876).