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We're on the Same Boat!

I have been thinking about the divisiveness we now face, and the unity that so clearly eludes us.

Looking back on our history, we tend to diminish disagreements, and naysayers, and amplify agreement, and even exaggerate cohesiveness. When we peer at the events of yesterday, we tend to forget the pain that separated us from our neighbors.

Think about how we retell our experience of going out from slavery in Egypt to freedom and wandering in the wilderness. And yet we read over and over again, that the people doubt Moses and even God. The Torah reports: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: ‘I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage….’ But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6)

Once free, we spend the remainder of the Torah arguing and fighting with each other. Moses dies in the Torah’s last chapter, his dream of touching the land of Israel is left unfulfilled. We are then left peering into the Promised Land, hoping and praying for a more unified, and less divisive future.

That is how the Torah concludes. That is the Torah’s story. We retell it, however, in different fashion. We speak about the value of am echad, one people, struggling together, and as one, to reach their promise.

On Passover, we do not speak about the bitterness that divided us. Instead, we offer up words about Pharaoh’s oppression and God’s redemption. We mythologize our unity. We elevate our cohesiveness in the face of (outside) forces arrayed against us. (Perhaps it was inner forces that divided us all along.)

Even the rabbis who sanctify the value of machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven, who imagine how lofty disagreements can bring us closer to God, paper over the distaste competing rabbis must have had for each one another. The Talmud says: “For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed!” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b) I wonder. Did rabbis Hillel and Shammai even talk to each other? Did they ever share a Shabbat meal? Or when finding themselves standing next to each other when the academy met, did they utter words of bewilderment about each other and exclaim, “I can’t believe he actually thinks that. What an idiot.”

Still our tradition offers this advice, “Every argument that is for the sake of heaven, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven, it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. (Pirke Avot 5)

History is much easier to read than to live. It is so much easier to write than to experience.

Divisiveness is a feature of each and every age. It appears with all its fire most especially when we pursue justice, when we attempt to right wrongs. One side then says in effect, “Our brethren have committed a wrong that must be rectified and must be held to account.”

I have come to understand. Even though unity is desirable, and would certainly be most comforting, there may be times when it must be cast aside, when it should be pushed away. The price we pay when pursuing justice is the loss of unity.

To right wrongs we cannot be one.

The truth is that we never were one. Perhaps unity can only be achieved when we come to recognize this truth and take it to heart. Perhaps what holds us together are the thin bonds of a shared purpose.

Reverend Martin Luther King responds: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

And that is all the unity we can hope for: the recognition that, like it or not, recognize it or not, we are in this together. We will never agree, but we are indeed on the same boat riding through this storm together.