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Overcoming the Separation

May 9, 2009 | by Jonathan Rosenblum

Identification with the suffering of our fellow Jews is not automatic. It requires work.

A resident of Haifa sent out a plea for forgiveness last week. He has been forced to close his business because of the katyushas falling on Haifa, and he and his family now find themselves wandering between the homes of family members and other good people.

Rather than focus on his own suffering, the anonymous author remembered that at this time last year residents of Gush Katif had come to Haifa to visit him and share their feelings upon losing their homes. He had refused to listen to them.

Now he benefits from the empathy, support, and identification of others, and thinks to himself: the residents of Gush Katif didn't even have that.

"I am not a religious man, and not of a mystical bent," he writes, "but who can ignore the deep relation between my attitude towards you and the price that I am paying now."

The author of that plea for forgiveness may not be religious, but he has profoundly grasped the connection between all members of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, and the terrible consequences for one who fails to identify with his fellow Jews in their time of need. The Rambam lists among the 24 categories of those who have no portion in the World-to-Come someone who separates himself from the community. "Even though he did not transgress any prohibitions, . . . if he does not share in their suffering and fast on their fast days . . . he has no place in the world to come," writes the Rambam (Laws of Teshuva 3:11).

Identification with the suffering of our fellow Jews is not automatic. It requires work. One of the great tragedies of modern Jewish life is how cut off Jews are from one another.

Last week, we hosted a family of seven from Haifa. One of the many things we learned from our guests was just how sheltered we are from what much of the country is suffering. In part that is a function of living in Jerusalem, removed, at least for the time being, from the threat of missiles falling on our heads.

The strain on his face was palpable. Without asking, I could tell that his son, who is an officer in the elite Golani brigade, must be in Lebanon.

Last week a good friend came to visit me. Even though I had seen him in morning Torah study session just a few days before, I barely recognized him. The strain on his face was palpable. Without asking, I could tell that his son, who is an officer in the elite Golani brigade, must be in Lebanon. I was right. His son had been in the heart of the fighting in Bint Jbail, in which eight Golani soldiers were killed, the day before. I can try to imagine what he is going through, but that is far removed from experiencing it first hand.

The difference between us and our guests was reflected in the way they prayed -- they spent hours at the Kotel each of the days they were with us -- and the way they listened to the news.

Listening to the news last week was almost unbearable. Each fallen soldier was individually profiled, and members of his family interviewed. The stories were too much to bear. Major Roi Klein, a father of two, threw himself on a live grenade, while saying "Shema Yisrael", to save the lives of the troops under his command. When the rav with whom he learned in yeshiva came to comfort his wife, she told him, "I want my children to grow up to be like their father. But who will be here now to show them the way."

Recently I watched a documentary on Israel's destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. One of the pilots described how he was named Mordechai after a grandfather who died in Auschwitz. He said that he never expected to return alive from the mission, but flew with the feeling that he was saving the Jews in Israel from another Auschwitz.

As I listened, I wondered whether there are still youth in Israel who feel themselves connected to the Jewish people in the same way. The dress, educational attainments or lack thereof, and apparent hedonism of today's youth give much cause for worry on that score.

But last week's news brought the answer: the pintele Yid, the Jewish spark still burns in the hearts of Israel's youth. The evidence came not just from the videos of tank crews reciting the Wayfarer's Prayer by flashlight or the countless photos of troops praying in tallis and tefillin before entering into Lebanon. It also came from the interviews with wounded soldiers, who expressed their eagerness to rejoin their comrades at the front, and in the stories of those killed who had implored their parents to join combat units.

The Torah community showed last week that it wants to participate with the rest of Klal Yisrael in this time of danger and suffering. Numerous organizations sprung up spontaneously to match families fleeing from the North with those who either had an apartment available or could take guests into their home. Free food organizations, like Chazon Yeshaya and Meir Panim, sent tons of food to those living in shelters in the North, and fed refugees in their various soup kitchens. Ezra L'Marpeh brought medical supplies to those who could not get them from closed pharmacies and moved patients from hospitals under fire to those in the center of the country. Ezer M'Tzion, Refuah V'Yeshuah, and the Bnei Brak municipality quickly organized dozens of summer camps for children far from home. The owner of one small toy business sent almost $40,000 in toys to community centers and hospitals in the North, many of which were contributed at cost by her suppliers. (The list is illustrative not exhaustive.)

These activities provided an unparalleled opportunity for the Torah community to reach out to many with whom we would not ordinarily have contact and to overcome, at least for the moment, some of our separation.

We have no idea how much our fellow Jews want to know that the Torah community cares for them. Our guests related with excitement how Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef had announced that the Sephardi yeshivot should cancel the intercession vacation. And they asked us repeatedly whether our sons' yeshivas would do the same.

I sensed that they were asking not just out of their shared belief in the protective power of Torah learning, but because they wanted to know whether we too were prepared to make sacrifices out of love for them.

Hopefully we will rise to that challenge in one way or another.

This article originally appeared in © Mishpacha Magazine 2006

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