In the Elul 16 entry of the Jewels of Elul blog, writer David Suissa tells this story:
“I was introduced to the concept of Jewish solidarity when I was 8 years old, thanks to a red winter hat — actually, many red winter hats.
We had just moved from the delicious climate of Casablanca and were now ensconced in the frigid world of the long Canadian winters. As we huddled in our little apartment one night, my father announced, “School starts in a week. You will all be going to Bedford School.”
Bedford School is where I first noticed the red winter hats. You see, we were not the only Moroccan Jews in the neighborhood. Several other families who had fled Casablanca moved at about the same time. And for some reason, all the Moroccan kids in our school wore the same red winter hats.
I remember seeing all this new stuff appear in our apartment: dishes, furniture, clothes, food … red winter hats. So I kept asking my mother, “Where’s all this coming from?” And she would always say: “The Jias.”
The Jias? What’s a Jias? I often wondered.
Well, one day, I learned what the Jias was: It was a Jewish organization (whose real name is HIAS) that helped Jewish refugees settle in new lands — taking care of things like plane tickets, apartments, furniture, food and when needed … winter hats. It was an organization where the givers were virtually 100 percent Ashkenazi Jews, helping Jewish refugees who were virtually 100 percent Sephardi.
It didn’t matter that we spoke Arabic, not Yiddish, or that we had dark skin. All that mattered was that we were Jews, and we needed help.
That was my first lesson in Jewish solidarity: Jews named Schwartz helping Jews named Suissa, with blind love that was clearly visible in little red winter hats.”
The first line of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, God calls upon all Israelites to witness the covenant between God and Israel:
You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger in your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. …
(Deuteronomy 29 – 11)
In the coming days, all of us — from every neighborhood and suburb, of every age, with different and common goals, skills, interests and abilities — will stand next to one another in our services for the Yamim Nora’im. As we do, we understand that the whole of the community is greater than the sum of its parts. The prayers we read in the first person plural (anachu, or “we”) underscore the notion that while each individual Jew is flawed and imperfect, when we all join together the strengths and good qualities of each of us are reinforced and magnified. (As quoted in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, this also teaches that no one should say, “It is not my responsibility.” Everyone must do his or her share. Barukh of Medzibozh)
The message of Nitzavim is clear: “Lo bashamayim hi” (the things God asks of us are not hard). The simplest is to recognize the humanity of each and every human being, to appreciate and celebrate the diversity of the members of the Jewish community, and to stand next to one another in humility before God.
Wishing each of you a Shanah Tova u’metukah, a year of sweetness and good health.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)