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Parshat Reeh August 7, 2021 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein is a good friend of mine; we attended Rabbinical School together and have stayed in touch even after he made Aliyah to Israel where he has lived and taught Torah for many years. He now has a Torah Blog that appears in the Times of Israel and this week his insights were not only sharp, but important as well.
In our Parsha, at the very beginning of Chapter 14 of Devarim, there is a commandment that we are not to cut ourselves nor shave a part of our heads as a way of mourning the dead. We do make a cut in our clothing, but we are not allowed to damage our bodies, even at the moment that we must confront death. The Torah commentator Rashi notes the reason is given in the next verse; we are consecrated to God, and it would be a desecration of God to damage the body that is created in the image of God. Such gashes and shaving are completely forbidden. 
But as is common in Rabbinic Literature, the Midrash squeezes a bit more from this simple prohibition. Rabbi Silverstein noted that in the Midrash Devarim, the Rabbis make a play on words with “Tit-godedu” with the root “alef-gimel-daled” which implies a “group”. Rabbi Silverstein notes, “This Midrashic allusion opened up a rabbinic discussion on the question of social cohesiveness. How much conformity is necessary to ensure that a community (or any community for that matter) can function as a community? Similarly, can distinctive groups exist within the framework of a larger community? This is a particularly fraught question in our day where the tone of the debate over individual freedoms versus communal responsibility is so raw.”
Clearly, the issues we face today are not new issues at all. Since the turn of the millennium, rabbis have been asking this question. As people began to move from one place to another, as they moved from community to community, they questioned what were the limits of what one person’s customs were, and how did they fit into the community in which she found herself? Rabbi Silverstein says it very succinctly, “Throughout the ages, this was both a religious and legal problem. How does a single community deal with different legal rulings or different practices? Of late, where all aspects of life have become increasingly contentious, it might be wise to heed this Midrashic advice. There is no panacea for this problem, no magic wand to wave to bring about societal cohesiveness.”
This is expressed in the old joke about the rabbi who finds his new congregation locked in an argument and battling over the proper way to recite the Shema. One group insists that the congregation stands for the Shema, the other group is equally adamant that the congregation be seated when the Shema is recited. Unable to figure out the proper custom the rabbi turns to the former rabbi to answer the problem. “Do we stand for Shema?” the new rabbi askes his senior colleague. “No, that is not the custom” comes the reply. “Then we should sit for the Shema?” the new rabbi concludes. “No that is not the custom either.” Comes the reply. “Well, what should be do, everyone is arguing about the proper custom?” the new rabbi says. The former rabbi replies, “Ahh, now that is the custom!”
This is all critical for our attention today since we live in a time where there is no societal cohesion at all. One news commentator likens it to living on two different planets. One group, on Earth One have one opinion and anther group, on Earth Two, have an entirely different approach and it seems like each one has nothing to say to the other. We disagree on facts; we disagree on solutions; we have differing opinions and we fight over which is the better opinion. We are so divided as a nation and as a community that it seems that there is no resolution possible. 
And this is not just an American phenomenon, Israel too is struggling with a politically divided society. They had five elections until a new government could be seated. The political parties were so divided that they could not work together to formulate a functioning government. Now, finally there is a government that has been cobbled together, but it is such a fragile coalition that everyone feels that the slightest problem could tear it apart. 
And while the American and Israeli situation is most important to us, we should not forget that these kinds of sociological divisions are happening around the world; France, Poland, and Hungary are all having their own politics that are tearing their nations apart. In a chilling historical note, one commentator remarked that the democratic Roman Republic lasted only about 300 years before authoritarianism took over the empire. The United States is almost 250 years old, close enough to see our own democracy sliding into a similar danger. 
I can’t take you down this path and then leave everyone with the idea that to escape the arguments, religious and political, that are tearing our communities apart is an impossible task. If the rabbi notes a problem, they have to also weigh in on possible solutions. Once again, my friend Rabbi Silverstein proposes a possible solution, “ I was struck by the profound words of the author of the Sefer Hahinukh (late 13th century Spain), whose interpretation of this dictate somehow managed to put a finger on what is lacking in today’s polity: “This prohibition [against breaking up into distinctive groups] applies to a community where there is a dispute where each side is on equal footing and each side wants to have its own way and as a consequence promulgate quarrels. The sides must bargain with each other until they ideally come to an agreement...”
Sefer Hahinukh means, “The Book of Education” and it was published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century as a study guide to the list of mitzvot published by Maimonides. This medieval educator teaches that if everyone is only interested in promulgating their own position, then there will be no end to the arguments. Only if they are able to talk to those who oppose them can they find common areas of agreement and compromises for their disagreements. 
If we stop to think about this, this is really nothing we don’t know. We understand that when people disagree, we need to find a way to give both sides something and find an equitable way for both sides to give up some things. We are allowed to be passionate for what we believe in, but we can’t be so stuck in our position that we give up everything because we can’t agree on anything. We could honestly believe that the world would be perfect if everyone sees the problems from our own point of view. But everyone does NOT see all problems from our point of view, and unless our solution is to be constantly arguing, then we must be prepared to compromise, and we must expect the other side to compromise as well. Having petrified positions is of no help whatsoever to solving difficult problems. 
I would remind everyone here, (sorry, it is the historian in me) that the war in the Balkans in the 1980’s and the Troubles of Northern Ireland, went on for centuries because neither side would give up their position. The Communist State of Yugoslavia buried those arguments for almost 50 years under the authoritarian rule of Josip Tito. When Tito died and the dictatorship ended, the residents of the region went back to fighting each other as if the 500-year-old war had never been interrupted. The same is true of Saddam Hussein; he held Iraq together by his iron fisted rule. When he was deposed, the country was almost divided into three states: Sunni, Shia and Armenian. They were only united by the rise of Isis that threatened them all. Only in Czechoslovakia, when communist rule ended, what had come to be known as the “velvet revolution”, the Czechs and the Slovaks found a way to divide their country peacefully so both sides could be happy with their positions. 
In our country, calling each side, “Socialists” or “Fascists” is not helpful. Our country has some very difficult problems to address. Racism, Immigration, Poverty, Economic Disparities, Environmental problems, Nuclear Proliferation, and Arms Races with other nations, all these need to be addressed. They are hard problems because there are no simple solutions. Many proposed solutions, over the years, have proven to make matters worse, not better. And there are forces in society that depend on the problems remaining so that they can predict their own dystopian future unless we abandon democracy and put our nation entirely in their hands. I do know that that solution leads to autocracy. That will be our fate, as it was in Rome, if we can’t find the compromises that we need to be able to move ahead so we can solve the problems we face. 
As always, the future is in our own hands. If we want to live by the words of Torah, if we want to guide our society by God’s law, if, as Rabbi Silverstein teaches, we wish to be “Children of the Lord”, then we must insist on leaders who can find compromises that will carry us forward. It is never a matter of “who is right and who is wrong”; it must always be a case of “arguing for the sake of heaven”. When both sides disagree, we have to assume that both sides want what is best for society, and then find the compromises that will move us forward together. Let us not be defined by what separates us but let us hold tight to all that unites us. 
May God help us find our way to compromise so that what we give up will help us get what we desire, a more perfect society, a more perfect country, and a more perfect union as we say….
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783