I finally came to terms with why everything is so expensive in New York City – the taxis, the food, the hotels; everything is a fortune. Hindy and I spent last Shabbos in Manhattan and I realized the reason you’re paying a premium on everything is because you’re actually in an amusement park. When you’re in an amusement park, you pay a premium. You pay 5 bucks for a coke and that’s just the way it is.

Think about it – you have people walking in the wildest costumes. There are literally people walking around decked out in cartoon costumes – they’re not part of parade; just walking around. There are people walking around like they just walked out of a museum exhibit of 16th century life in the Americas. There are people walking around with almost no costume at all. Ironically, I’m the one getting stared at because I’m wearing a kippah. Do you see yourself?!

You’re also surrounded by an ongoing soap opera. Everyone is talking to each other or on the phone about the most intimate things – full volume. I’m assuming this is why so many screenwriters live in NYC. They’re probably all just sitting in Central Park with a pen and paper taking notes.

Then you have the amusement park rides. Find me a more thrilling ride than taking an Uber in the city. Switching lanes at full speed, avoiding pedestrians, and flying out of our seats as we go over ten-foot potholes.

And then the most extreme sport in all of NYC – crossing the street. Talk about risking your life. Everyone huddles at the street corner and waits for that light to turn green. You’re crammed between businessmen, people in the middle of a jog, people sleeping on the floor – there is no discrimination at the street corner; we are all equals beholden to the mighty power of the light. The nanosecond the light changes, the race begins. Here’s the crazy part – apparently, you’re not allowed to look up. Everyone keeps their eyes completely glued to their phone as they walk ahead at full speed ahead. I don’t know how they do it. To top it off, the people driving – they have a ten second rule. For at least ten seconds after the light changes, you are allowed to run a red in NYC. Or so it seems. And so the car is flying full speed ahead, you’re trying not to trip on a homeless person’s sleeping bag, listening to the person next to you spill the beans on their entire personal life, all while checking your emails. Who wouldn’t pay a few extra dollars for such a thrill?

While we were there, we decided to go Sefardic for the weekend. Friday night we went to a beautiful shul that will not be named with a completely different nusach. For about ten minutes during davening I had no idea what they were saying. I couldn’t even pick out the words he was saying. All I heard was the Middle Easterm Sefardic ukulele sound… For all the people here who struggle to follow along with davening, I feel your pain.   

But what really stuck out was this one little kid who was making noise. He was actually just trying to sing along with the chazzan, but I learned one thing – you do not make noise at a Sefardic shul. This poor little boy was getting death stares.

I thought that was intense, but the next day, I got a real lesson in decorum. We went to the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, the oldest shul in New York, whose customs go back to the conversos or anusim who escaped Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th century. They take decorum and ceremony very very seriously. First of all, no one talks. There were two women who were talking, but they were just moving their mouths there was no sound coming out… It was impressive. Second, all men MUST wear a talis. I was standing next to a visitor who was not, the gabbai immediately walked over with a talis, held it until he got the hint. And everything is choreographed. Right before the rabbi speaks, anyone who wants to make a donation comes forward and gets a blessing from the rabbi. They wait in line, when it’s their turn they come forward, receive the blessing and then the rabbi and the donor bow at one another, congregant turns to the left and follows a path back to his seat. And then, the best part, if you get an honor in their shul you MUST wear a hat and tie. When you walk in, there is a stack of hats and a stack of ties for those who are under-dressed. All in all, I was very taken by the decorum, the formality, the ceremony that we found in the Sefardic community.

And I was thinking – we have always struggled with decorum in our shul. It’s gotten much better, but there’s still a good amount of chatter. So I’d like to propose that Ner Tamid goes Sefaradi. From now on, parents of children who talk have to give an extra donation, and anyone who gets an honor must wear one of my old hats or ties. I’ll be happy to bow and walk in a perfect line and all if us will be deathly silent during davening. What do you think? (Do we have to bring this to the board?)

 Many years ago, we had a gabbai committee, and we were trying to ensure that all the unique customs we have were codified. We were trying to create a rigid structure for our gabbaim to follow so everything would run smoothly. The individual tasked with creating the gabbai handbook was Mitch Mirkin, of blessed memory. Mitch was a gem of a person, who was tragically taken from us about a year ago. Mitch took davening very seriously – he was one of the brave people who sat up front in shul. He was working on this handbook for months and then one day he turned to me. “Rabbi,” he said, “I’ll tell you the truth, I think this gabbai handbook is a mistake.” He went on to explain that one of the things that attracted him to our shul was that things didn’t always run like clockwork. While I was busy looking at whatever every other shul was doing, he found the way our shul functioned as charming. I think about what he said. A lot.

Every shul and every community has its own unique character. Every shul has its own unique set of customs; some are Halachic customs, and some are just the culture of the shul. A child singing along in one shul may get death stares and here, the child will likely get a high five. Some shuls have four hundred clocks, ensuring that davening finishes at an exact time, and here, the is no pressure to finish at a specific time. Is one right? Is one wrong? No, there are different pathways in the service of Hashem.

Many years ago, I overheard a comment that really stuck with me: “When Mashiach comes,” this person was saying, “we won’t have the same debates between the Religious Zionists and the Chareidim etc etc. We’ll finally know who was right all along.”

I remember thinking then and I still stand by this now – I could not disagree more strongly. In ancient times, we had twelve tribes; twelve unique approaches to serving G-d. Nowadays, for the most part we don’t know which tribe we’re from, but the notion that there is a plurality of approaches to G-d is very much alive. Whether it’s Sefardi or Ashkenazi. Whether it’s Chassidic or non-Chassidic. Whether it’s Chareidi or Modern. Those are the modern tribes of Israel.

To be clear, there were twelve tribes, not 1000 and not even 100. Not every purported pathway to G-d is legitimate. But the varying cultures and communities that are committed to Halacha, committed to Torah coming from Sinai, who possess a belief in the 13 principles, all of those approaches are legitimate.

The final instructions given in the book of Bamidbar, which we concluded today, was that each tribe was expected to only marry from within their own tribe. Intermarriage, back then, meant someone from the tribe of Shimon marrying someone from the tribe of Yehuda. This was not only done so that tribes would hold on to their territory. We were expected to marry within our own, explains Rabbeinu Bachya, to maintain the spiritual character of each tribe. It is critical that we appreciate and build upon the unique strengths that our community possesses. If we are constantly looking over our shoulders, if we’re just copying, then we lose out in the unique role that we have to play.

And at the same time, there is a danger with this approach. There is a danger that each tribe or each culture will become so confident in their own way that they distance themselves entirely from the other tribes. Too often, we become so confident in our value system that we become disdainful of those who don’t share those same values. We become so loving of our way of life that we become disgusted by the lifestyle of our brothers and sisters who have chosen to live on a different path.

And that’s exactly what happened to the shevtaim, to the tribes of Israel. Yes, they developed their own way of life, but in doing so, they no longer felt connected to their brethren. So much so, that a few hundred years after arriving in the land of Israel, a civil war broke out, and the tribe of Binyamin was almost entirely decimated.

The leaders of that generation realized that there needed to be a greater bond among the people and revoked the practice of not marrying between tribes. But we haven’t yet found a perfect balance. It was tribalism that led to the splitting of the Davidic Monarchy, which in turn led to the destruction of the first Bais HaMikdash. It was factionalism that led to the feud between the Hasmonaean kings which led to the destruction of the second. We have been unable to find the balance between a confidence in our own way of life and a respect for a different point of view.

We are about to begin the Nine Days of mourning, during which we reflect on the loss of the Temples and why they are no longer here. There are a lot of things we cannot do during this time but I’d like to propose an exercise, something proactive that we can and should do. Can we take a moment each day of the Nine Days to reflect on a group of Jews who are living differently than we are? We don’t have to travel to NYC, we could look out the window or read the news. Can we not learn something from “them”? Can we not find value in something “they” are doing? We’re not going Sefardi (sorry). We can and must maintain our own customs and our own way of life without making the same mistakes as our ancestors. We have the ability to break this thousand-year cycle of infighting. *

In the merit of this exercise, in the merit of our ability to see the good, may we merit the day when we return to our Bais Hamikdash, where we are taught that each tribe, each group will enter through their own unique gates, but once through those gates, we will all connect to our one common Father.

*This Nine Days exercise was inspired by a Tweet by @wordpaley