Toward the end of his life, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, Israel’s first Sephardic chief rabbi, composed his last will and testament to the Jewish people. In what is now considered a classic spiritual document and taught in schools throughout Israel, the theme of Rabbi Uziel’s will is the unity of the Jewish people. What follows is one of the most famous excepts:
“Divisiveness and factionalism are the most dangerous enemies we have, while peace and unity are our greatest strengths, as they form the eternal foundation for our national survival. Preserve and strengthen these two pillars, as they will strengthen you.”
Rabbi Uziel wrote these words in 1953, a mere five years into the modern-day State of Israel. A native of Jerusalem whose life and rabbinic career spanned three ruling administrations in the Land of Israel (Ottoman, British and Israeli), Rabbi Uziel directly participated in the formation and founding of the Jewish state, knowing how difficult a road it was to achieve independence and statehood. The last thing he wanted was for this precious new Jewish achievement to risk destruction from strife within Israeli society. But just five years into Israel’s existence, internal conflict abounded, and, being a student of Jewish history, Rabbi Uziel did not want to see Israel’s unfortunate past history in the Land of Israel repeated.
In this week’s Torah portion — Parashat B’Chukotai — God tells the Jewish people:
“If you follow My laws and are careful to keep My commandments … I will grant peace in the land … but if you do not listen to Me, and you denigrate My commandments … I will make the land desolate, and I will scatter you among the nations.”(Leviticus 26:3,6,14,20).
There are 613 commandments in the Torah, but as a student of Jewish history, Rabbi Uziel knew that the violation of only one commandment caused the Jews to be exiled from their own land: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Prior to 1948, the last time the Jewish people held some form of sovereignty in the Land of Israel was during the years 132-135 C.E. This brief three-year reign was during the Bar Kochba revolt, when the Jews temporarily defeated the Romans and regained independence. The Bar Kochba revolt ended in a bloody defeat of the rebel forces, the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the end of Jewish independence until 1948.
In contemplating this depressing defeat of the Jews, the Talmud does not discuss any mistakes made by the Jewish military. Instead, it tells this story:
“It is taught that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students (24,000), and all of them died from a plague during the same time period (the Omer), because they did not treat each other with respect” (Talmud Yevamot 62:b, Midrash Genesis Rabbah 65:3).
It is more than a tragic irony that the students of Rabbi Akiva — the great teacher who proclaimed “Love your neighbor as yourself — this is the greatest of all principles in the Torah” — all died a tragic death from the violation of this very principle. The divisiveness and factionalism of Rabbi Akiva’s students ultimately contributed to the downfall of the briefly independent Jewish state under Bar Kochba, reminiscent of the sinat chinam (baseless hatred) that caused the downfall of the Temple in Jerusalem 65 years earlier. With the mistakes of Jewish history recurring too frequently, Rabbi Uziel did not want to see the Jews make the same tragic mistakes again in the young new Jewish state. He did not want to see “the land desolate,” and the Jewish people “scattered among the nations.” Instead, he wanted to see “peace in the land.”
The Talmud teaches that Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying on the 33rd day of the Omer. Known as Lag B’Omer, which begins after Shabbat on May 17 this year, this day is marked by celebrations, picnics and bonfires. As we sit around our bonfires, it would be wise for us to reflect upon Rabbi Akiva’s words to his new batch of students:
“My sons, listen to me, my first students died because of their narrow-mindedness and jealousy toward one another. Beware not to repeat their unfortunate behavior.”
On this Lag B’Omer, it is time for the Jewish people to treat these words as more than slogans. We must internalize these teachings and make them an active part of our purpose as Jews. In our desire to seek “peace in the land,” and not risk seeing “the land desolate” and the Jews “scattered among the nations” again, we must be proactive in pursuing Rabbi Akiva’s words, as well as the closing words of Rabbi Uziel’s final will:
“Remove from your midst all causes leading to factionalism and divisiveness, replacing them instead with engines that drive you to peace and unity.”
From the year 135 through 1953, all the way to today, “strength in unity” is the timeless lesson of Jewish history.