During the week I was in contact, via Facebook, “with the rabbi that turned atheist” from last week’s discussion. I wanted him to see my response to his comments. We had a pleasant exchange. He wrote me, “Thanks Shalom, I am sorry that the show upset you. Looking back on the experience it was impulsive to do it the way I did. It really upset some people, and I can understand why. I had years to process and synthesis these thoughts. I appreciate you putting your feelings in writing like you did. Kol haKavod.” I wrote back, “Thank you xxxx for the response. I wish you much continued success on your radio show and much help from Above on your personal journey, as we all need on ours!”
A few weeks ago a former student of mine approached me with a life crisis that he is going through. I could tell by the way he was talking that it was having a strong effect on him. He explained to me in great detail why he has completely cut off ties with his family. Being the youngest of four boys, he has always felt left out. His family excluded him from a recent vacation that they went on. It did not help much that he previously served in the IDF – without his family’s blessing. For them, it was like serving in the Russian army. Furthermore, he has adopted and is pursuing a career in alternative medicine, while his father and brothers are western doctors and engineers. Their disagreements about medical treatment, vaccines and scientific research are personal rather than a cold intellectual incongruity. Needless to say these factors, in addition to ordinary family tension, have caused heavy strains on their relationships, to the point where they have not been in contact in months.
I sympathized with my student how painful it must be to be on such bitter terms with immediate family.
What does the Torah say about all of this?
There is a fascinating contrast between a section in last week’s parsha describing the Egyptian attack of the Jews at the Sea and this week’s parsha, Parshat Yitro, reporting how Bnai Yisrael arrive at Har Sinia to receive the Torah.
The Torah says, “And behold, Egypt is travelling (in the singular form) after them,” when Bnai Yisrael first lay their eyes on the incoming army. Rashi, picking up on the singular form of the word נסע comments, “בלב אחד כאיש אחד” “with one heart like one man.” In other words, Egypt had unified itself for the cause of returning the Jews back to their original bondage.
It is well known that when Bnai Yisrael reach Har Sinia the Torah also uses the singular “ויחן” “And he encamped.” Rashi comments here, they did so “כאיש אחד בלב אחד” “like one man with one heart.”
What is the difference between the Egyptian unity and the Jewish People’s unity?
The Commentaries on Rashi explain that the Egyptians put their goal, their philosophy, and “their heart” ahead of their unity. When they share the same mission their unity goes into effect. By the Jews, we place our unity as a priority in and of itself and then we join together in our shared mission.
This sheds important light on basic Mitzvot like כיבוד אב ואם (in our parsha) and ואהבת לריעך כמוך. Maybe Hashem only wants us to honor our parents and love our fellow Jews when we can share basic values and agree on certain terms and conditions. If we do not share these values, if terms cannot be met, then we might think that our differences inhibit us from performing these Mitzvot. Rashi Hakadosh, the Holy Torah comes to teach us, even before we receive it, that nothing should ever come in the way of honoring parents and unifying ourselves with our fellow Jews. That is the priority and then comes a shared philosophy. Yes, even when a parent intermarries and a brother goes “off the derech” we have an obligation to keep these commandments. (It also happens to be that this blind acceptance is really our only chance that we will be able to “convince” them.)
I told my student, you get on the phone now and you end this period of “excommunication” with your parents and family. For your own mental health and happiness, renew your ties with them.
How often do we let our philosophies and “theologies”, as important or as unimportant as they may be, get in the way of something far more important. We justify to ourselves that we have every right and reason to break off ties with our family and fellow Jews because we don’t see eye to eye. “If they would accept me and accept what is important to me I would be able to maintain the relationship.” But our Torah tells us, me and you and every Jew, to get beyond that. Find a way to relate, honor, respect and even love.