By: Barry Dolinger
“And Haman said unto King Ahasuerus, ‘there is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.’”
On a plain level, the description of the Jews as “scattered” and “dispersed” appears to describe the geographic condition of the Jews of ancient Persia. The description of the Jews as scattered throughout the empire serves only to heighten the perceived threat and serve as a pretense for Haman’s forthcoming plans to try to uproot the Jews. Literally, it works to amplify the danger and oddity of the Jews, who observe their own unique customs (and therefore not the king’s) and might be presumed to be plotting revolt at any moment.
Ancient Rabbis, however, understood the passage in a different light. Not only were the Jews “scattered” and “dispersed” in a geographic sense, there were internal discord and division amongst the Jewish people of Persia themselves. This passage highlights, according to the Midrashic tradition, the vulnerability that can befall a people during moments of weakness. On this read, it is specifically the dysfunction and argument amongst the people that render them particularly susceptible to a Haman-like villain. Yes, villains are ever-present in world history, particularly Jewish history. As the Hagaddah proudly proclaims, “in each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” Still, the spirit of unity and cooperation allows us to overcome; discord enables enemies and accelerates attrition.
Personally, I often find calls for unity and cooperation absent substantive suggestions shallow. Frequently, when two (or more) sides are having a disagreement, one piles on by adding that they find the other side to be causing undue disagreement. Democrats and Republicans frequently accuse each other of acting divisively, and Jews are often urged to increase achdut, unity, and to adopt a particular course of action as a result. Usually, I’ve found that achdut means forsaking one’s genuine and good-faith beliefs or opinions to appease somebody else’s offense. It’s not always reciprocated. It often feels self-deprecating.
Now that (401)j has been up and running for a few months, I must admit that my perspective on achdut has changed a bit. Previously, the rabbinic teaching about the Jews being divided ergo vulnerable did not particularly speak to me; this year, it resonates much more. What changed? A whole lot of genuine collaboration, teaching, study, and discussion amongst groups of people with different experiences, views, proclivities, and beliefs have made a serious impact on my life. Much the way a good book introduces readers to new perspectives and expands horizons, the diversity present in (401)j has started to do a similar sort of thing for me. In our model, achdut is not a principle that forces compromise when thorny issues present themselves. Rather, achdut is the tangible result of mutual respect and friendship embodied in the good-faith desire to learn from and engage with each other, sincerely and openly and de facto respectfully. We respect each other, so it is only natural that we will respect each other’s ways of looking at things and seek to learn and grow together.
This principle is at the fore of solid friendships and the core of building community. When we value each other and build strong relationships, benefits are many, and enemies have much less to exploit. This year, I’m looking forward to a joyous celebration of Purim and the continued growth of a special community.