Be more like Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel

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One election, then another one, and another one.

The first time I was able to vote was on April 9, 2019. I remember how excited I was. I was already a soldier, and I was voting in my uniform, which gave it a double meaning for me.

However, the excitement didn’t last very long. The second time I voted was just five months later, and I was still in my army service, and still excited, just a little bit less.

In the two years and eight months that I served in the IDF (the Israeli army), I voted four times – though normally Israel’s elections happen once every four years.

Those elections made Israeli society very divisive. In the past, when you asked an Israeli what he or she means by “us,” the answer was pretty clear: “us” is the Israeli society, us is the Jewish people around the world, and us is the people of Israel. Even when there were big controversies, we were all united.

Now there is me, not us. We have lost some of the unity that kept us so strong, and we have to find a way to become “us” again.

Hanukkah is coming very soon, and the holiday sparked a very famous disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, rival schools of thought 2,000 years ago.

Beit Shammai held the opinion that on the first night of Hanukkah, eight candles should be lit, and then each night, we should decrease the number of candles. Beit Hillel thought the opposite, starting with one candle and finishing with eight, to increase the holiness.

That is one of many examples of disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel – however, it didn’t change the respect they had for each other. Although they had a lot of disagreements, they were following the phrase vehaemet vehaShalom ahavu – therefore you must love honesty and peace (Zechariah 8:19).

Each side respected the other side; they understood that it was important to follow the rules of Judaism the way they believed, but unity and peace between all was more important. They understood that they didn’t have all the truth, and that they all needed to thrive to connect and bring peace.

Last year, I traveled in South America for about eight months, as part of “the big journey after the army.” In Israel, for those who don’t know, there is a tradition to travel around the world right after leaving the army, and the majority travel in South America and Asia.

I had decided to be a staff member at a summer camp in Pennsylvania after my army service, and then I continued to travel for a few more months. I mention this because in South America there is a little bit of a utopia. When you go there, the minute you meet an Israeli, you become best friends, regardless of your political beliefs, age or any other differences.

Every Friday night you meet new people who become your friends; you all buy food together and make a great Friday dinner. So while I was officially traveling alone, I never was alone. There are also many Facebook and WhatsApp groups for Israelis to share information, get advice, or just to ask for help. You feel like you’re in a community, one with so many people who just want to have a great time –   and make sure that you do too. This was so important to me. I felt like I was home so far away from home.

Elections can bring out a lot of hate, and I ask all Jews to not forget about the  “us.” To be more like Israelis in South America, to remember that we are all one big family.

I ask that we be more like Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. It’s OK to have disagreements, but it’s not OK to forget what love is.

Hanukkah is the time of the year when we celebrate our Judaism and the miracle. We light candles and we sing together, eat sufganiyot and latkes, and dance together. It’s the time to connect again, not just within your family, but with everyone.

And just like the miracle, I hope this light and love will stay for many years.

Chag Hanukkah sameach!

ELIHAY SKITAL is the Israeli shaliach (emissary) at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.