Sunday, July 17, 2016
A human being is like a letter of the alphabet: to produce a word, it must combine with another. - Mandelstamm
Last month, in A Time for Love, I wrote about the special time for achdus that comes each year with the holiday of Shavuos. That spirit of love and unity fills the entire month of Sivan, the third month of the Jewish calendar. The number three is closely related to Shavuos, as the Talmud says, "[G-d spoke] to a three-fold people through a third-born on the third day in the third month.”1 So too the Jews can be said to have achieved three-fold unity on Shavuos.2 It was an easy level of achdus to reach, though, because it was mainly G-d Who brought us together at Mt. Sinai.
In this month of Tammuz, the fourth month of the year, we have the potential for a much greater degree of achdus - on the level of four-fold unity - but it's much harder for us to achieve. It's so difficult, in fact, that when our ancestors had the same opportunity, thousands of years ago, they blew it. The united, three-fold Jewish people stood around Mt. Sinai for almost 40 days, waiting for Moshe to come back from meeting with G-d. Moshe, though he was only one person, was the fourth, unique part of the nation. The Jews waited, and waited, and waited, and then - Moshe was late.
Our tradition is that only a little more time and we would've had it. Moshe, the spiritual link to G-d, would've returned to the people with the two stone tablets, and that powerful combination of leader and people would go on to fulfill G-d's plan perfectly. Instead - panic, and the making of the golden calf - and it wouldn't be until the seventh month of Tishrei that the Jews would have repented, put the pieces back together, and finally achieved that greater degree of unity. But this fourth month of Tammuz, which sizzles with potential, ended up being a month of tragedy.
Yet there is a happy ending. In the seventh month, during the holiday of Sukkos, we do the mitzvah (commandment) of joining together four species (kinds) of plants, in a beautiful expression of four-fold Jewish unity. We bring together in our hands the lulav (date palm branch), hadassim (myrtle twigs), aravos (brook willows), and esrog (citron fruit). There are a number of ideas about what the four species mean in terms of unity. Some say they relate to different parts of a person - the spine, mouth, eyes, and heart - that we must use together in the right way.3 Or they could refer to various kinds of Jews that need to join together to be complete.4
Whatever meaning one gives to the four species, they have a structure that teaches us something about achieving four-fold unity. We start, as in the third month of Sivan, and Shavuos, by putting together the three similar plants - the lulav, hadassim, and aravos. Because they're so similar, that's the easy part. Then we add the very different fourth part, the esrog. As anyone who has ever held all four species during morning prayers on Sukkos knows - that's much more difficult. This principle - combining three similar parts with one very different part - is the main idea and challenge in achieving four-fold unity.
One Theory of Four
We can learn more about four-fold unity, and see how hard it is to achieve, by looking at an example in a different field. In science, the famous theory of relativity by Albert Einstein is also about joining three like parts with one very different part. Until about 100 years ago, people thought the world had only three dimensions - length, width, and height. Einstein showed that time, which people had always thought of as something completely different, is actually a fourth dimension, just like space. Thus Einstein joined the three parts of space with one part of time in a four-fold unity.
distance2 = x2 + y2 + z2 - (ct)2
Notice how the four parts of this equation look very similar. The three parts for space (x, y, and z) and one part for time (t) all have the same form. Because of this similarity, scientists know that time really is another dimension, just like space.
But there is one obvious difference in the time part of the equation - it has the letter "c" and the letter "t." That "c" stands for the speed of light, which is a huge number. The time dimension is very different than the three space dimensions because it includes the speed of light in this way. But, even with that big difference, all four are still dimensions. And each is one part in a four-fold unity.
Einstein's joining of space and time led to even bigger ideas about unity in the physical world. Scientists now know that there are four forces of physics: three similar forces and one very different force.5 It turns out that one four-fold unity can lead to another, even bigger four-fold unity.
In the Jewish and wider world today, there are some very clear examples of groups that could be joined in a four-fold unity. The most obvious case may be the four denominations of religious observance. In America,6 we have the three liberal camps - Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist - and the one Orthodox camp. The liberal movements have already joined together in a three-fold unity that they call pluralism, the view that there is more than one way to be Jewish. The Orthodox, in contrast, say that their way is the only way to be Jewish. People have struggled for over a century to unify these four parts of the Jewish nation, with little success.
The ideas above about four-fold unity could help solve this achdus problem. Part of the solution may be to realize that the Orthodox will never see themselves as only another denomination in a pluralist group. They are like the esrog of the four species, or time, the fourth dimension. Yes, only one part of the Jewish nation, but a very special, unique part. However, they could still come to accept that there are other parts to the Jewish people, even another group of parts, which for certain reasons are very different from them.7
The structure of four-fold unity goes beyond the Jewish people to the greater family of nations - for instance, to the relationship between Jews and Palestinians. One sad example of this larger-scale achdus took place in the summer of 2014, when the Jewish family mourned the loss of three boys - Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach. Their kidnapping and murder united the Jewish people in a profound way, and each year around the time of Shavuos and Sivan we observe Unity Day to commemorate our loss and work for achdus.
But there is an opportunity for much greater unity, and peace, if we remember our loss that summer of a fourth boy. Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian, was kidnapped and murdered a few weeks later, in Tammuz, as an act of revenge by Jewish terrorists. Abu Khdeir's murder showed, by the worst sort of tragedy, that we are all part of one people. If it can happen through terrible loss, then it can also happen by coming together in mutual acceptance and a desire to live in peace. Perhaps someday soon the parents of all four boys will be able to come together in their shared grief, and transform it into a much greater love for all of us.
In Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, the conflict between peoples goes beyond Jews and Arabs to include the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While some people in each group want the Holy City for their faith alone, the fact is that all three religions have valid claims to Jerusalem. Whether they've been there for 1,300, 2,000, or 3,000 years, all three faiths have been connected to Jerusalem for a long time.
Time has shown that even when different nations make peace with each other, we can still lack equality and unity in our most basic relationship: the connection between women and men. According to Jewish tradition, gender inequality began almost at the beginning of time. But our tradition is also that women and men will ultimately be restored to full equality. We see this struggle happening today at the heart of Jerusalem, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, where the Women of the Wall strive for equal rights to full Jewish observance and closeness to G-d.
I think the unity between women and men, or any intimate couple, is so difficult to achieve because it's a deeper level of connection. It isn't three similar types combining, or even the more difficult four-fold unity, but two very different yet completely equal halves joining to make one. Like the "c" and the "t" nestled together within that special fourth dimension, it's a much deeper and more powerful bond.
In A Time for Love, I said that Shavuos is like the wedding day between G-d and the Jewish people. Sukkos, when we finally achieve four-fold unity, is like the week-long honeymoon. But there is still one more holiday, the quiet fourth yearly festival of Shemini Atzeres.8 Called the "eighth day of assembly," it's one day after Sukkos, when we come inside from the sukkah, like a couple returning home to start their ongoing life together. If Shavuos is "the time of our love," Shemini Atzeres is "the time of our intimacy." It's only one day, but it represents the love that's become timeless.
In this hot and strained month of Tammuz, we're almost guaranteed to lose the love that we've waited for so long. Each year we go through the same cycle, and this time is about loss. But we also know that by year's end we will put the pieces back together and win that higher love. Like Moshe and the Jewish people, G-d and all of us, one day we'll take that love we had in that one place and time and make it into a love that lasts l'olam va'ed (everywhere and always).
1 Shabbat 88a↩
2 One view is that the three parts were Kohen, Levi, and Israel, but really those groups did not exist at that time. I'm saying that the number three characterizes much of Shavuos and the month of Sivan.↩
3 Vayikra Rabba 30:12 ↩
4 Vayikra Rabba 30:14 ↩
5 The three similar forces are: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism. The one very different force is gravity. However, no one knows how to unify them with mathematics yet. ↩
6 In Israel, it's the chareidi (ultra-Orthodox), dati (national religious), masorti (conservative), and chiloni (secular) groups, but the 3-and-1 split is not as clear. ↩
7 I may write an article explaining these reasons for next month's 140-year (seven score years ago) anniversary of the Orthodox secession in Germany. I think if people understood more of why the Orthodox-Reform split happened they could accept the validity of the various denominations today. ↩
8 The day is celebrated as a double holiday with Simchas Torah, the end and new beginning of the yearly Torah reading cycle. ↩