Shabbat Mishpatim / Shabbat Shekalim: Community – The Difficulty Is In the Details

Every year we study once again the account of the moment when our people stood at the foot of Mt Sinai, witnessed a revelation, and became a community. Literally a “peak moment,” our commentators teach that this was the only time in all the history of our People of Israel when we were of one mind.

That’s a warning. This week’s reading, parashat Mishpatim, continues with that revelation, now with the details of the ancient code of law meant to guide us in ethical paths. It’s the proverbial “morning after” and upon looking at the fine print of the covenant we’ve just concluded, we’re feeling some ambivalence. We look at each other and sometimes wonder – are these the people with whom I’m meant to hold hands, that we might go out into the world together?

Perhaps that’s always true; perhaps the natural reaction to the step forward into commitment is to step back. It’s often true in relationships and in jobs. Having made common cause with another, we circle back to be sure of our own parameters. Torah comes to warn us to be careful: the community to which you’re committed does not exist unless you find your common cause with it. Jews sigh: amkha, we call ourselves, literally meaning “Your people” (that capital Y is deliberate). 

Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em may be true, but we often try to have it both ways. In the accounts, both Torah and the midrash which fills out the teachings regarding the time our people spent at Sinai, our ancestors splinter into groups, making choices: these are the people I include in my community, those I don’t. 

When the prophets condemn ancient Israelite society this is where they begin: the abandonment of widow and orphan. Sure, it goes on: our prophetic tradition also singles out corrupt business practices and fraudulent politics – but it begins with a denunciation of the way we turn away from each other, and the half-asleep way in which we do it.

According to Jewish tradition, we can learn Torah from nearly anything in the world, when we see how our learning casts illumination onto our sense of Jewish identity and meaning. With this in mind, I invite you to consider a modern sort of midrashic insight offered us by computer word processing. When we create a document, we can opt for “widow and orphan protection” to keep a single line of a paragraph from ending up alone on a page due to the effects of automatic formatting.

When we step back from the complete commitment to that community of which we are a part – that utter immersion we sometimes feel, in a moment of emotion or spiritual intensity – we are stepping back from people. We are creating widows and orphans. 

Jewish community is a funny thing; it’s neither your family, nor is it only your book group, or even your mah jongg group. It’s something not well defined by our liberal American individuality, for it is a place in which we are meant to care for each other regardless of whether we share in each other’s individual interests or tastes. We Jews who live in the United States, many of us have been conditioned out of the ability to find our place in this communal mode, and it’s difficult to learn. 

But in these days when we are feeling under siege, when we need safe spaces and feel keenly that we cannot carry our burdens alone, Jewish community is a lucky inheritance for us to have. It takes time, yes – and it redeems time:

You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed in its meaning and to be realized in it by you.  – Martin Buber (Meaning and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue, by Ronald C Arnett)

Prayer for Standing Rock

Let us rest, our God, in peace. And let us get up to life. Awaken us to another day of action, of solidarity and support. Lift us out of slumber with a resounding affirmation of life and those who protect the living earth.

Spread out over us a sukkah of peace, and give us good guidance. Save us for the sake of your name, one name, that unites all living things. Shield us from foe, plague, sword, famine, and anguish. Shield us from sound cannons, tear gas, militarized police.

Save us from greed and corporate interest that drive oil pipeline development at the expense of Native sovereignty, our water sources, and our increasingly fragile climate. God of peace, may we always feel your protection, for you are our Guard and our Guide. Guard our going forth each day to fight for the health of people, rivers, birds, and fish. Guard all sacred burial grounds. Guard those who gather prayerfully, peacefully, unarmed. Send guidance to those who have been so disconnected from the living earth that they favor poisoning the water supply for profit. Send guidance and healing to the police whose actions have been violent and who carry this wound now on their hearts. Gather us all under your wings in refuge.

Spread out your wings over Standing Rock, over the Water Protectors and over all who work to preserve the sanctity of your creation. Blessed are you, Shielding One, who protects your creation with peace and justice.

Shabbat Yitro: Community comes from Sinai

On this Shabbat Yitro our parashat hashavua describes the moment of standing at Sinai, that moment that made us a community.

Close readers of the Torah such as our ancient and modern commentators and interpreters have long noted that the Torah speaks of those who came out of Egypt as an erev-rav, a “mixed multitude,” and yet, interestingly enough, the description of those who stood at Sinai at the moment of commitment are all described as Israelites. Something about that moment made our ancestors, and us, into the Jewish community to which we all belong.

Belonging is a difficult thing. “I’m not a joiner,” some of us might say. The sociologist Robert Putnam noted in the 1990s that more and more people were going bowling, but less and less were joining leagues. In his study Bowling Alone he found that Americans were losing the social linkages that create and maintain meaningful community in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our work places. We are more likely now to sue a neighbor then meet at the back fence to talk over issues we may have.

It’s more complex for Jews and Jewish community. It’s a common truth among Jews that you can walk with the community, or walk away from the community, but as a Jew you are never really without the community. Ironically, it’s often the non-Jewish world that reminds Jews of that, by assuming and assigning us as part of a group that we individually may not feel close to, or may have attempted to disown completely.

The days we are living through now reinforce this communal aspect of our singular identities. Some of us are attacked because we are Jews, not because of something we’ve individually done or said, even as some of us are threatened because of other aspects of our selves – we are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer, we are People of Color, we are Immigrants and Refugees. Not because of something we’ve said or done, but because we belong to a certain group.

Belonging, then, is a two-sided coin. All of us seek out belonging somewhere. We need each other, but many of us never learned the skills we need to connect socially. And at the same time we are inevitably assigned to group belonging regardless of our choice of where we might choose to belong. 

What does the Jewish group – the Jewish community that began at Sinai – mean for Jews and the people who love them? 

First: Jewish community is that in which all Jews and their families belong, rather as in the famous line from the Robert Frost poem: “Home is, when you go there, they have to take you in.” It’s family in the most profound sense. Even though we don’t all know (or like!) each other, we are all MOT (“members of the tribe”) to each other.

Second: Jewish community is demanding: it is there for us at all levels, and it needs us at all levels. In times of simkha or mourning, there is no place a Jew can go that the Jewish community cannot gather in support. The Jewish community exists on profoundly necessary levels for spiritual growth and deep human development. Ironically, one often encounters that truth precisely in the discomfort we “individuals” feel when we sense that this group is more than a voluntary connection, and while it promises more to us, it also expects more from us. 

Finally, consider the “all” part of that phrase, “all of us.” All of us stood at Sinai. Each one of us is part of the All, but to experience that requires us to relinquish some part of our “I.” In return it promises us that none of us will ever be alone.

The joy and the pain of it is this: it is not enough to find a comfortable place in community if that community does not challenge us to become more whole in ourselves, pushing us past our current judgment of ourselves and toward compassion, humility, and the willingness to grow. 

At Sinai we learned: Community is powerful. All of us standing together can face what must be faced.

Shabbat Bo: Come to The Hard Place

Bo el Par’oh, Moshe is commanded at the beginning of our parashah: “come to Pharaoh”. Many have asked: why “come”, when the right verb should be “go”? To consider this we first should look at a different, but possibly related, question.

This parashat hashavua describes the escalating tensions between Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and the Israelites Moshe and Aharon, demanding that he let the People of Israel go. Seas of ink have been spilled in the effort to understand why G*d, the omnipotent King of the Universe, is described as “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh. 

There are many mysteries in the Torah. It is sometimes instructive to examine our response to the mysteries that exercise us the most. Why do some of the aspects of Torah upset us more than others?

We are commanded against sex with inappropriate partners, yes, but so much more strongly commanded against cheating in our business deals, or on our taxes. Yet no one expects an executive order against cheating in business or in taxes in the next few days, and the issue of which adults, quite possibly as a sign of their love, are engaging in consensual sex, is once again – alas for us all and our democracy – a weapon of political demagoguery.

There are many more examples of such lopsided religious urgency. Rather than listing them and considering them, let us consider why we shy away from some hard things, and quite possibly over-emphasize others.

According to the great medieval teacher Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Rambam), the decision to do good or evil always rests with us. At the beginning of our path, we are free to choose, and we find equal opportunities to do good or evil. But as soon as we make the first choice, our subsequent choices are not so evenly balanced. The more we persist in justifying our first choice by continuing in such choices, the less we are able to make a radically different choice.

G*d did not force Pharaoh to do evil, writes Rambam; the more Pharaoh chose evil, the more irresistible the next evil choice became. G*d has built this response, as it were, into our makeup. The more we sin, the more those sins block our way out of the evil we have chosen.

Is there a correlation between those places where we are more blocked ourselves, and the sins that we react to more urgently in others? Is there a link between our energy and our avoidance of the hardest place to stand?

Instead of taking refuge in the easy stand of “what kind of manipulative G*d hardens Pharaoh’s heart” perhaps we might ask ourselves where our own hardness of heart exists. The parashah encourages us: come, look within, seek that hard place in yourself. Never mind ancient stories you don’t understand anyway; put down that righteous indignation toward another, look within, and explore what other feelings might well up to lead you to a more true place in yourself.

Resistance requires all the honesty and openness and love we can manage; never mind Pharaoh’s heart, see to your own.