Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Separate Unity


We are a community governed by an overarching desire to conform.

Almost always, staying in those carefully drawn lines is the secret of Am Yisroel’s unceasing adherence to an ancient faith.

In every family leading an authentic religious life, the man of the house sets aside time for learning Torah. Every Jewish mother lights candles and prays for the Yiddishkeit of her children from the deepest parts of her heart. We all help each other and pitch in for holy causes we hold dear. (At least one Charidy campaign a year is a minimum requirement for membership in the Jewish people, it seems.) Each child brings home similar parsha sheets. No self-respecting parent discards the dog-eared papers streaked with yellow and purple crayon before they have claimed a place of honor at eperate uthe Shabbos table.

Our system has crystallized the ideals on which our homes are built. The sameness keeps us on symmetrical pathways and demands exclusively the kind of growth true to our heritage.

These things are beautiful. These things are a blessing.

But sometimes, the standardization of our lives invites monotony, and with it, a lack of inspired living.

Everyone wears the same shoes, searches for the same deals on the same Ferragamo belts, and looks at the same houses (or wishes they could).  Mishloach manos are miniatures this year, the furniture in every home is the same strain of leather and the same shade of gray, and applications are only sent to schools that the “right” neighbors have chosen. Our living rooms and dining room tables are varying degrees of similar. They are ads for what has been reimagined as vital and “in” by the brilliant minds of social media, whom, for some reason, we have accepted as an integral part of our daily lives. Without a trace of irony or shame, we call them “influencers,” and proudly display that influence in every corner we find.

We conform wherever we possibly can. It is our way of life, for better and for worse.

And then, Pesach arrives.

It is very much the same for many of us, and at the same time, incredibly different. It is full of strange foods and strange customs, and they vary from home to home.

We all buy matzoh, and for all of us, it’s very expensive. But some people would risk life and limb before eating matzos baked in a machine, and others would let nothing else enter their mouths. There are those who eat shredded horseradish and others who only touch lettuce. Depending on background, Karpas is a potato or a carrot or a radish.

We are all doing the same thing, differently.

Not just in every kehillah, but in every home.

Even as Jews who live on a different sphere and for a completely different purpose, there is no other day in the year when we do things just to be different. But on Pesach, it is the reason for almost everything we do.

Families sit shoulder to shoulder at tables tight on space. With varying amounts of grumbling (mostly dependent on how many siblings were invited to the in-laws), eventually everyone finds a place.

Vekan haben sho’el.

There is a hush, and the youngest child rises from his seat. With shy eyes filled with wonder, he asks the only question that matters tonight.

Mah Nishtana?

“It is clear that tonight is different. And from all the strange things happening, it is clear that so are we,” says the little boy standing proudly on the chair.

“Now, tell me why.”

And from the chant of Avodim Hayinu and Vehi She’omda, accompanied by the harmonies of Dayeinu, Hallel, Rabbon Gamliel, and Nishmas, the answer emerges.

We are different because we were chosen, and because, with Naaseh Venishma, we chose to be.

A nation marched out of Mitzrayim, united and 600,000 strong. The sea split and the teeming procession diverged into 12 separate lanes. Forever different but never splintered, they headed to Har Sinai to receive the Torah as one.

On this night, our differences took shape, and it is from those differences, still today, from which the joy in being a Jew stems.

Yidden wake up in the morning and lay tefillin. There are a million customs as to how they should be written and how they should be made. The same words, however, are found inside each handmade leather box.

Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.

The kids recite Modeh Ani and go to school. They learn a divine and unchanging moral system instead of learning a moral system that doesn’t stop shifting.

There are divergent schools of thought in chinuch and differences in the way things are taught. Yet, everywhere, the text is eternally identical. Our children all study exactly the same thing – the Devar Hashem Itself.  Eschewing a miserable nightlife designed for the “exalted” purpose of filling empty hours and passing endless time, we sit like royalty at the Shabbos table. Chicken soup or lachmagine; it doesn’t really matter. We are all equally focused on our families and on inculcating generational faith.

Torah Hakedoshah, our yeshivos and our  kehillos. Shalosh Regolim, Yomim Noraim, Purim, Chanukah and all the meaning-laden “regular” days in between.

Subtle differences in each community, but always with one matching and transcendent message.

On Pesach, these two ideas converge at each table.

It is the night each Jewish family, separately and with the nuances known only to them, celebrates the uniform mission known to the Am Hanivchar as a whole.

Ma Tovu Oholecha Yaakov.

We can send to different schools, our tablescapes don’t need to match, and we can wear dissimilar belts and shoes. More importantly, we joyfully sacrifice to stay faithful to our personal mesorah and to guard the customs distinct to our families.

We are different from each other.

It is the blessing of the Jewish home.

Yet, and at the very same time.

Veniflinu ani ve’amcha mikol ha’am asher al pnei ho’adamah.

Most of all, we are united in the inherent truth that we are different from them.

The lyrics are identical in every house and at every beautifully set table. The songs of the geulah set down in the Haggadah and the transmission of emunah charged to us by their meaning are, for all of us, exactly in sync.

On Pesach, we are different. On Pesach, we are one.

And that is the blessing of the Jewish People.



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