While the world officially gathered in Sochi Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics, much of the world is focused 600 miles to the northwest on the central square of Kiev, capital of the Ukraine. Blood, fire, and tears marred the once beautiful Maidan as the death toll rose, even as reports of a shaky truce began to surface. While the specifics behind the protests against the Ukrainian regime are geopolitical, economic, and local what has emerged out of the clash between the Ukrainian people and its government is universal -- the power of a society refusing to be dispersed in the face of brutality and autocracy.
It is, however, impossible for me to witness the scene of Ukrainians gathering together with such determination and not to think of other gatherings that occurred throughout the cities and villages of the Ukraine. Ukraine was once a place of rich Jewish history and has also been a place of great Jewish suffering. In places such as Lviv, Uman as well as Kiev, Jews were subjected to pogroms at the hands of soldiers and citizens alike, massacred, beaten and exiled from their homes. Even today, the unrest in the streets is a source of particular fear for the contemporary Jewish communities of Kiev as well as other minorities, such as the Muslim Tatars, that have been targeted in the past.
Still, while the history, and even to some extent the present, of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine must not be forgotten, what is unfolding in the Ukraine is compelling and requires support. In the words of a Jewish tradition (Pirkei Avot 14:4) it "a gathering for the sake of heaven." In that source the Sages differentiate between such a gathering which "is destined to stand" and a "gathering not for the sake of heaven" that must fall. Especially this week as we read from a Torah portion whose name means "Gather" (Vayakhel) this distinction is paramount.
One of the most influential teachers of Jewish tradition, the Baal Shem Tov ,founder of the Hasidic movement, emerged from the heart of the Ukraine. He taught about this distinction in an even deeper way. When the community comes together, especially in celebration, they do not do so to accomplish something, but rather to bring together their souls and the sparks of light that only they can access. In other words, to gather is not a means to an end. The gathering is itself the greatest purpose.
This is why a gathering for the sake of heaven must include everyone. People who gather only for themselves are a mob, they can do great damage but ultimately they fall away. However those who gather to stand with all of each other can face anything, transform the world, and will not be extinguished.