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)
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.
You know where you stand, you know your path forward, you’ve spent time deciding what your future is going to look like. And then something happens, all of a sudden, and your plans….they get eaten up like the seven fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream.
Every year we read parashat Miketz on a Shabbat that coincides with Hanukkah. Every year Joseph is suddenly snatched from a dungeon and hurried before the Egyptian throne. Whatever he had imagined for his future disappeared suddenly, and a new reality confronted him. He was alone, surrounded by strangers, without resources.
Except for one very important resource. As the text tells us, when he is asked to show what he’s capable of, Joseph says clearly that his strength and his vision are not his, but the inspiration and blessing of his G*d.
What does he mean, and how can we relate?
Each of us is alone in our skin and in our dreams, as in our hopes and our fears. In the days and weeks since the U. S. presidential election, a growing sense of vulnerability has begun to eclipse the fairer aspects of the autonomy – the individuality – of our lives. While we may cherish our time alone, no one wants to be lonely. More, to be alone is to be isolated in ways that may be dangerous.
We know it: the only thing you can count on in life is that change happens. As the Yiddish folk saying goes, man tracht und Gott lakht, “we make plans and G*d laughs.” We can attempt to deny it and keep going in the path in which we’ve already invested our time and our dreams, but day by day we will only become more out of touch, and more pathetic.
I once officiated at the burial of a woman who lived alone. It was two weeks before they found her. Long walks by yourself in the woods or on the beach are one thing, but there is nothing uplifting about that kind of solitude that leaves you without support when you need it most.
I worked with the Jewish community of Kiev during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and saw Soviet citizens at a loss for a sense of identity and belonging in the post-Soviet era they were entering, very much against their will. Jews were among the minority groups who had an ironic advantage; the Jewishness that had been held against them in the Soviet system gave them a fallback – although they didn’t know much about it, their Jewish identity was there for the exploring. Jewish communities formed with great rapidity and passion in those days.
Like Joseph, those Jews were vulnerable and without resources – except for one. The memory of where they came from and its teachings was still there for them, and as they sought it out, it strengthened them. Through the communities they formed and the support they gave each other, they experienced inspiration and blessing. As the Jewish mystics would say, they evoked G*d’s presence in their midst, and thus they knew strength and support and hope.
The same thing happened to the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story. The same thing can happen to us. Change happens, uproots our expectations, upends our lives. And when in response a small group of individuals comes together, supports each other, in so doing they create something holy.
All of a sudden. May it happen to us.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other
This is the Shabbat of parashat Ki Tisa, the most famous part of which is the debacle of the Golden Calf. On one foot (the Jewish idiom for “in a nutshell”): We have just lived through the glorious commitment ceremony between us and G-d, and received the promise of the Torah (at least the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”) as our ketubah. We begin to build a sacred space to celebrate that relationship and seek its intimacy. Then Moshe goes up to Mt Sinai to get the Torah from G-d – and there our troubles begin.
According to the midrash, it was all due to a misunderstanding:
When Moses ascended the mountain, he said to them: After forty days, in the first six hours of the day, I shall return. They thought that the day of his ascent should be counted as one of the forty, while he meant forty full, 24-hour days. In truth, the day of his ascent – Sivan 7 – should not have been counted, since it did not include its previous night, meaning that the forty days ended on Tammuz 17.
On the 16th of Tammuz the satan came and filled the world with darkness and confusion. Said he to them: “Where is your teacher Moses?” “He has ascended on high,” they answered him. “The sixth hour has come,” said he to them, but they disregarded him. “He is dead”–but they disregarded him. So the satan showed them a vision of Moses’ bier. This is what they said to Aaron, “For this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.” (Rashi; Talmud, Shabbat 89a).
The appearance of the satan in this story is fascinating, because in Jewish midrashic tradition, the satan is expressed as that which sabotages the relationship of the Jewish people with G-d, or between two Jews. In this story, the satan does nothing creative to bring about the disaster of the Golden Calf – it simply amplifies and “tempts” into hysteria something that is already there.
What could have caused our people to stray so utterly, and commit so painful a betrayal, so quickly after the joyous Sinai moment of “we will do and we will hear”? Perhaps it was really nothing more than letting themselves get caught up in a never-ending loop of mutual concern, which turned into escalating fear, which turned into catastrophic fantasy – thus we might all find ourselves falling down a big, black rabbit hole of our own making and without any reality other than that of our own, utterly unfounded conviction.
It’s too bad that they could not hear Aaron trying to tell them: there’s nothing wrong with Moshe; he’s on his way. All you’ve done is get nervous and mistake the time.
Where does the satan come to amplify your own fears or misgivings, and turn them into a stumbling block before which no good intention can possibly get through to you? Is it a feeling that you haven’t been heard, when if you checked you’d find out you had? Is it an ill-considered desire for your own definition of perfection that gets in the way of the communal good? If it keeps you away from G-d and feeling distanced from those with whom you share community, then maybe you need to try thinking outside yourself and your own, already formed convictions. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe there’s another perspective. Maybe you need to open your heart and listen.
The wonderful thing about community is the trust we are offered, and the chance to turn to someone and say “please check my thinking here”. Where one may be lost in the dark, two or more have a better chance of finding the light again.
On Tuesday of this week, the world fell apart for Jews 1,941 years ago. In 72 CE the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the mighty Roman Empire on 9 Av, which this year corresponds to Tuesday July 16. The tragedy was as great in its time as the Shoah (called in English the Holocaust) is in ours. On this Shabbat ever since, Jews have gathered together, as we do each Shabbat, but on this particular Shabbat we have come together with the sense that we are in need of consolation.
“All flesh is grass”, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. “Nothing abides but G-d.” (40.8)
Nakhamu, nakhamu ami, “be comforted, be comforted O My people”; these opening words from the haftarah for this week (Isaiah 40.1) give this Shabbat its name. The pain of that first disaster has lessened with time, yet the Shabbat retains its relevance, for who has not known the need for consolation, for healing, for peace?
The Jewish understanding of these opening words is found in their repetition. The Biblical commentator Ibn Ezra interpreted: the repetition means that comfort will come “swiftly or repeatedly”. Since the Jewish people entered an exile that lasted for nearly two millennia on that day, we are left to conclude that the latter of the two possibilities is more likely. It has not been swift. But repeatedly, and on this Shabbat, it is needed, for some among us personally, for all of us communally.
Communally – as a community. Our Jewish response to the repeated for need for consolation among our people – and in our own individual lives, after all – is found in an even closer reading of the first word: nakhamu is said in the plural. We Jews do not find consolation by isolating ourselves, but in the intimacy of human contact. Sometimes our closeness causes friction and frustration, and even pain, but we are a community, and we will find consolation, and redemption, only through, and with, and because of our kehillah, our Jewish community.
This evening, when Shabbat begins, seek out your community. If you are in need of consolation yourself, you will find it with us. If you are not, come and help us offer it to someone who needs an outstretched hand and an open heart.
“Each blade of grass sings its own song to G-d’s glory”. We may come and go like grass, but we do know how to find consolation in song, in Shabbat, and in each other.