On Thursday mornings in synagogue, we recite a prayer that begins with the words, “Acheinu kol beit yisrael—Our brethren, all the House of Israel.” The tefillah offers the image of all Jews living as siblings in the same home, caring for each other as brothers and sisters. This idea of fraternity is a central feature of Judaism, and comprises the final F in our trifecta of F words that characterize Akiva’s approach to this year: Forgiveness, Flexibility, and Fraternity. As I have written over the past weeks, these are values that are always welcome, but this year have become essential to our surviving and thriving in this COVID environment.
Fraternity is the value of treating friends like family. Fraternity means that we care about each other not as colleagues, fellow community members, or business associates, but as relatives connected by bonds of blood. Fraternity means doing for others not out of expectation of return, but because doing for others is akin to doing for ourselves. This is what our namesake, Rabbi Akiva, meant when he pronounced his famous dictum, “Love your neighbor as yourself—this is the main principle of the Torah.” If we regard all of humanity as our brethren, we will want to do good things for others, for it is akin to doing good things for ourselves and our loved ones.
There are many aphorisms extolling the virtue of fraternity in the Jewish tradition. In my introduction to Akiva’s COVID protocols I quoted from the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh—all of Israel are responsible for each other. I used this to show the halachic basis for our approach to COVID in our school, namely that we follow restrictions not only because of our responsibility to protect ourselves, but also because of our duty to protect others. When we mask, keep our distance and wash our hands, we are not merely guarding our own health (a Jewish value in itself), we are following the principle of fraternity, that we are enjoined to care about others.
There is another Talmudic quote (Ta’anit 23a) that states the case for fraternity in even starker terms: Rava said, “Give me fraternity, or give me death!” While Rava’s quote may seem extreme, I feel its pertinence at this moment in history. On the one hand, Rava points out that our very lives depend upon fraternity. Our caring for and about each other during a time of pandemic can literally mean the difference between life and death for our friends and neighbours. When speaking to our children about the importance of following COVID protocols we must emphasize this heavy responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of others.
Rava’s quote has another facet, namely that we cannot live without friendship. Seeing the faces of our children when they returned to school this week, either in person or by Zoom, the truth of Rava’s words became clear. Our students thrive on their friendships and fraternity, and we must find safe ways to nurture this instinct during these challenging times.
This year, we need fraternity more than ever. We will need to rely on our friends, our colleagues, and our community for support and assistance. This year, let us give freely of ourselves to others. When asked for help, support, or a favour, let us give willingly of ourselves in the spirit of fraternity, with the hope that others will respond in kind.
In our prayers during this High Holiday season we refer to God as Avinu—our Father. If God is our father, then we are all brothers and sisters.