For many years, I have spent Friday mornings reading through a stack of newspapers reflecting a wide spectrum of editorial positions in Israel. It used to be amusing to count the differences in news coverage between them, as if each newspaper came from a slightly alternate reality. Recently, however, these differences have grown into chasms of ill will, cynicism and dehumanization of “the other,” making it difficult to understand how all streams of Israeli society might continue living together. This problem is not unique to Israel—more than ever, polarization plagues societies throughout the world—yet in Israel, it seems that this development threatens our very existence.
Polarization is the greatest problem facing Israeli society today. Despite our multi-party tradition, in recent years Israeli political society has succumbed increasingly to demonization of the other. The current governmental embrace of extreme parties, opinions and policies that until now have been taboo in Israel has provoked horror and alienation, as well as suspicion of anything that reflects the Jewish character of the state on the left.
Fortunately, our Jewish tradition provides us with an approach to resist and overcome the grave dangers of polarization, one that is particularly resonant as we approach the holiday of Shavuot. The key, I believe, is to replace binary identities with multiple identities and to recognize that all of these identities, while they may compete, ultimately also serve a singular purpose.
The balance between singularity and plurality can be traced to Sinai. The Midrash relates that at the moment of revelation:
“When the Blessed Holy One was revealed on Mount Sinai, twenty-two myriads of angels descended with God. … Once Israel saw them composed of flags and flags, they themselves started desiring flags. They declared, ‘My God, we want to have flags like them.’ ” — Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3
Like a small child at the Grand Canyon enthralled by a bug or a small rock, when God appeared to the Israelites at Sinai in that moment of direct revelation and they heard God’s voice “face to face in the mountain out of the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 5:5), their attention was actually drawn to the colorful flags that angels were waving.
According to the Midrash, rather than becoming frustrated by our lack of attention, the Blessed Holy One grants our request: “The Blessed Holy One said, “Just as you have desired to make flags, on your life, I will fulfill your request, as it says “God will fulfill all of your requests” (Psalm 20:6).”
Flags have played a central role in our current conflict, sometimes in a weaponized form. Flags are a stand-in for identity. Angels descend to accomplish a single mission (GR 50:2 and Rashi Genesis 18:2). To wave a flag is to know precisely whose team we are on and what our mission is in the world.
Each of the tens of thousands of angels was waving their own flag, and yet what characterized us at Sinai was unity and singularity—we were like a single individual with a single heart (Rashi).
This apparent tension between plurality and singularity is resolved in the opening of the book of Numbers in which the Israelite encampment is described: “each individual on his flag according to their family” (Numbers 2:2). Each tribe, like any modern army, has its own flag, fight song, and skill set. There may be rivalry and competition between the units, but never polarization. All of the flags are carefully arranged around our shared core mission—the tabernacle holding the holy ark, which emblemizes the recreation of Sinai and the continued Divine presence among the Israelites.
As we begin to read the book of Numbers and immediately afterwards celebrate the revelation at Sinai, we would do well to remember that just as each flag in the desert represented a distinct and critical aspect of the overall mission in the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land, so, too, do each of our “tribal” voices play an essential role in sustaining Israel and protecting the singular mission that resides at its core. Our multiple identities compete with but must also complement one another in order to help us resist polarization and work together, each of us with a unique and necessary mission.
Our current world has succumbed to centrifugal force—the magnets are pulling us to the extremes, causing us to experience our identities as binary rather than complex, as “us vs. them,” as threatening rather than mutually enriching. We feel it in our world, we feel it in our country, and I feel it in my work at Pardes—an institute that brings Jews together from across the religious spectrum to learn from the Torah and one another. Resisting that pull is incredibly challenging on a national and a personal level. However, our diversity is our great strength. Rather than pull to the extremes, we must amplify the centripetal force, center ourselves symbolically around the ark, and see our critical identities as contributing to the whole, united around a central mission. May we use this season as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to that task.
Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy is director of the year program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. The opinions expressed here are hers alone.
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