We’re a pretty divided lot. By ‘we’ I mean Americans, and also Jews, and also American Jews. In each realm, the divisions are deep and well known. Fox or MSNBC, J-Street or ZOA, religious or secular, etc and so on…
In a moving and plaintive column earlier this week, David Brooks of the NY Times poses this question – “What on earth holds this nation together?” His answer – that “despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind” – draws on an equally moving and plaintive essay written a century and a half ago by Walt Whitman. The great poet’s key line was this: “Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”
The drawing of lines is a persistent and quite ancient human activity. Long before there were Republicans and Democrats, human societies made distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The current issue of National Geographic, devoted to an exploration of “what race means in the 21st century”, includes an article called “The Things That Divide Us,” which teaches, among other things, that “people everywhere are ‘identity crazed.’ We can’t help it: We’re wired from birth to tell Us from Them. And we inevitably (and sometimes unconsciously) favor Us – especially when we feel threatened.” Awakening our ‘tribal minds’ turns out to be ‘remarkably easy’ writes David Berreby. And it also true, he continues, that “human beings can shift their group perceptions in both directions. Sometimes we turn Us into Them. But we can also turn Them into Us.”
That’s where this week’s haftarah enters the picture. The prophet Malakhi’s famous closing words summon up the figure of Elijah the Prophet who, it is promised, “shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.” (Malakhi 3:24) An old rabbinic teaching unpacks those words and imagines three distinct venues for ‘reconciliation’ (literally ‘the restoring of heart to…’). “Rabbi Yehudah says: to bring [people] close, but not to [make people] distant. Rabbi Shimon says: to resolve arguments. The Sages say: …to make peace in the world…” (Mishnah Eduyot 8:7)
While the Mishnah’s teaching is understood to refer to the messianic age, I’m inclined to think that we can apply its wisdom to the here and now. Let’s read these three understanding of Elijah’s work in sequence. Step one is to bring people close. Then, once we’re actually talking to each other, we can begin to resolve, or smooth out, our disagreements. One conversation at a time, that process yields peace in the world. Maimonides identifies Elijah as “a prophet (who) will arise to guide Israel and set their hearts aright.” We could use a healthy dose of that guidance right about now.