Shabbat Shavuot: community – a healing of spiritual exile

The mystical doctrine of the sefirot clearly shows that we are all connected. We just don’t always sense it. We spend our life learning through experience and observation that, contrary to the popular American slogan, we are not really “rugged individuals”, solitarily in control of our own fate. First we learn that others will tell us what to do, and we do not have a choice in the matter. Then we learn that we need others to validate our own sense of our existence. Finally, if we are lucky, we come to understand the depth of our interconnectedness with others, and we realize that we could not live without it.
In the ancient world, humans had a much better chance of survival if they banded together and depended upon each other for the fulfillment of common needs – water, food, safety. Today we see demonstrated in many positive and negative ways our dependence upon others and their choices, even as they are affected by us and ours. Thus, in ways we cannot even begin to understand, everything we do reverberates.
No matter what our degree of understanding, the Kabbalah indicates, we must always remember that no event in the universe lacks a specific purpose. In language and content that remarkably mirrors that of contemporary physicists, Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto of the eighteenth century observed, “The patterns and systems of all existence [are set up] in such a fashion that all of them are interconnected.” – Edward Hoffman, The Way of Spendour: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology, 39.
For Judaism, to inquire into one’s own life is to engage in the three pillars of the world’s existence and stability: Torah, avodah, and g’milut hasadim – study, prayer, and acts which fulfill our relational responsibility.  Each of the aspects of this three-fold path to personal meaning leads us to other human beings: study is a personal experience of learning which is traditionally pursued in hevruta, a pairing which provides the benefit of the synergy of shared learning; the personal act of prayer (which includes meditation, self-assessment, and other modes) requires a minyan, a group, to invoke holiness; and acts which fulfill relational responsibility demand of us first that we engage the other, so that we might ascertain what is required of us in each individual situation.
We are individuals embedded in communities; we are herd animals, whose welfare often depends upon how others react to us, and we are isolated and lonely, trapped inside our own minds. Much of human history has demonstrated that we cannot exist without each other, yet the strong message of our modern culture is that each must learn to “be yourself”, “find yourself”, “fulfill yourself”. Carol Gilligan first drew our attention to the reality that our first state of existence is to be literally tied to another person, by the umbilical cord upon which each new life depends; yet we also know that to become a functioning adult, we have to separate from that nurturing source, so that we might learn to nurture in our turn.
The problem we’ve discovered in the celebration of individualism is that it is easy to over-emphasize, and there is much to lose by way of this imbalance of the value of the one over against the many.  Sociologist Kenneth Gergen summarizes the problem:
Most authoritative accounts of “the way things are” contain hidden values, the critics surmise, and one of the most problematic of these is the value placed on individualism.
Western culture has long placed a strong value on the individual’s self-determination (usually limited to the male). It is the good person, it is said, who makes his own decisions, resists group pressure, and “does it his way”. It is the spirit of individualism to which the culture pays tribute for economic prosperity, military victories, and a strong democracy. Yet, the critics point out, this same cultural value has many shortcomings. In particular, it invites people to think of themselves as fundamentally isolated, alone to ponder and create their own fate. Because cooperating with others means “sacrificing one’s own desire” to the will of others, individualism also discourages cooperation and the development of community. A me-first attitude is also invited, because if we are all isolated individuals then self-gain is to be preferred to the gain of others. Indeed, propose the critics, if individualism remains the dominant value, the future well-being of the planet is jeopardized. We now possess the means for annihilating all human life, and values that stress independence, self-determination, and self-gain militate against cooperation for the good of all. They foster a context for destructive conflict. – Kenneth Gergen The Saturated Self: Dilemmas Of Identity in Contemporary Life, 97-98.
Charles Guignon describes the challenge of balancing the self and the other in terms of living an authentic life. Considering the nature of human life before the advent of  the modern social emphasis placed on the self, he sees an individuality with much less well-defined boundaries.
The premodern regarded the self as extending into and inextricably intertwined with one’s wider context, “with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come.”  – Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic, 18.
It is  very much in this spirit that, in the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites understand the moment when they accept the relationship of the community with God to be both a moment in which they participate as individuals, and also a reality which reaches far beyond the individuals who they were. Here the Israelites are seen as individuals who are “inextricably intertwined”, with kinship groups defined in the widest sense, including servants and those who are not kin, but have joined the Israelites in their journey:
You stand this day, all of you, before YHVH your God – your tribal heads, your elders, your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, then stranger in your camp, the woodchopper to the waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of YHVH your God, which YHVH is concluding with you this day…as he swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before YHVH your God, and with those who are not with us here this day. – Deuteronomy 29.9-14
To compare the premodern approach to the modern attitude toward religious belonging is to trace a very long, from the perspective of history, pendulum swing between the self and the community. On one side, the self subsumed by the community through which the individual finds definition. On the other, the self seeking radical separation from the community, again in order to define itself. The modern stance toward the community is that one must separate from it in order to “find oneself” and develop a true sense of one’s selfhood. The community is seen as limiting, even diminishing. Yet in a premodern religious sensibility, interestingly, the sense of individual insignificance which can proceed from a feeling that one belongs to a whole which is far greater than the self, is not necessarily disempowering or negating of the self. Guignon points out that such a sense of the vastness to which one belongs may be what develops the human capacity for awe.
The conception of the self as inextricably tied to a wider context also makes possible the ancient virtue of reverence, a way of experiencing things that includes an awareness of the intricate interwovenness of all reality, the dependence of each person on something greater than him- or herself, the consequent sense of human limitations that comes from such an awareness, and an experience of awe before the forces that lie outside human control. – Guignon, 19.
In the modern period, we are steeped in the supposition that our lives should be dedicated to individuality and independence. We are meant to be autonomous, and no one outside of ourselves can command us. We freely choose, and we can choose to distance ourselves from anyone who does not agree with us or support our choices.
Comparing Guignon’s descriptions of premodern religious thought about personal existence to our own modern assumptions about our God-given selfhood can be an arresting experience. As we have already noted, for modern humans, there is a sense of sovereignty about the self which overturns traditional obedience to religious practices which are undertaken despite personal feelings or willingness. In marked contrast, for premodern religion, “we have an obligation to shape ourselves in order to measure up to an external criterion”:
what is important is not how you feel at any given moment, but rather that you cultivate your feelings so that you will come to feel the right way about the right sorts of things at the right time. Feelings are not givens we have to deal with. They are raw materials we have to work over and discipline in order to make them properly functioning components of a self that is itself a properly functioning component of something greater than itself. – Guignon, 21.
The premodern experience of time is communal; “in this way of experiencing time, there is ‘a sort of mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites’.”
With each periodical festival, the participants find the same sacred time – the same that had been manifested in the festival of the previous year or in the festival of a century earlier; it is the time that was created and sanctified by the gods….in other words the participants in the festivel meet in it the first appearance of sacred time, as it appeared ab origine, in illo tempore (at the origin, in that time]. – Mircea Eliade, cited in Guignon, 22
One of the most central commandments of Pesakh is that “in each generation, one must see oneself as if one personally came out of Egypt, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in those days at this time.” (Haggadah Shel Pesakh)  The movement of the people from slavery to freedom was the greater context within which each individual found a meaningful path because each knew herself to be part of a greater meaning. One’s commitment to that path, defined not by oneself but by the community, might be seen by some moderns as limiting of the freedom to choose one’s own way; or it might be seen as ultimately freeing oneself from a nightmare of existential anxiety in which one cannot make meaningful decisions about how to live because one first must daily decide who one is!
The power of the ancient story of the Israelite Exodus to lift human beings out of existential gridlock and into a life suffused with meaning and depth in every activity is such that it has reached far beyond its original cultural context; the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s drew form for its passion, and passionate rhetoric, from the Jewish redemption story. On the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. defined the meaning of his life not by his own quality or length of life, but by the life of the people of which he knew himself to be an integral part:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! Www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm
Here is a sense of being at home in the world despite what happens to oneself, because one knows with whom one belongs. Guignon describes the perspective of the pre-modern person who knew the group in which she belonged:
given such an outlook, it was possible to have a fairly strong sense of life’s meaning – an ability to feel oneself to be part of some overarching scheme of things that ultimately (if not evidently at any particular moment) made sense. In such a worldview, you just are what you do. A person just is what he or she does in performing socially established roles and carrying out the functions necessary to the smooth functioning of the wider context of the world. – Guignon, 24
We of early 21st century America do not live in that world. In our modern world, the idea of the self has expanded, and now people are admired who are “individualists”. The modern human being considers herself to be autonomous, deciding for herself what she will do, who she will be. Conformism with groups is derided, and the creative loner is romanticized. Why is it, then, that in this wonderful world of self-celebration, we find ourselves feeling much more alone?
Part of the problem, in Yom Kippur terms, may be found in the imbalance of the self vis-à-vis others, and vis-à-vis God.
The worldview that emerges with the rise of modern science is anthropocentric to the extent that it treats the human self – understood as the knowing subject who objectifies, knows and controls – as the center of the universe….At the end of this transition what is left is a world consisting of raw materials at our disposal; nature is encountered, in Heidegger’s words, as a giant filling station supplying energy for our needs. – Guignon 32-33
“Where before our goal on earth might have been seen as finding our place in the cosmos or compliance with God’s will, the new aim is seen as attaining power and mastery over nature.”  This reminds us of more ancient words: p’ru ur’vu umil’u et ha’aretz v’khivshuha, “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.”  While this would seem to indicate that it is God’s will that we impose our own will on all other forms of life and the planet itself, we also find, not long after, that God put the human in the garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, “to work it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2.15)  And so we see that the promise of mastery over nature, our opportunities to take for ourselves of its riches, comes with the responsibility to use our power to preserve and guard the world which sustains and enriches us. Like everything else we shall explore, there is a balance here, between the appetites of this moment and our ability to envision what may yet be. Eyzehu khakham?  haro’eh et hanolad, “who is wise? one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)  When we make what we think are individual choices, what is the impact upon the world of which we are a part? Who would have thought that, by exploring our own potential, we might tip the balance too far in the other direction, and lose track of the way back, or forward, to go home again?
We have left the Garden of Eden, as a place where we knew exactly who we were and what we were to do – and not do. The resulting exile in which we find ourselves is like that of the first humans; they left not the only home they had ever known, but also the certain nearness of God’s presence, with all its implications for covenant, commitment and belonging. Faced with the aimless freedom of that perspective, Pascal wrote, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” (Cited in Guignon, 42)  Our modern predicament is that we have reasoned ourselves into the realization that
We are finite beings who face an end that will define the whole of our being once and for all. It is entirely up to us what that life amounts to, what it adds up to in the end. We are the authors of our fate. Moreover, the meaning and value of that life depends not on our outer accomplishments, but solely on the condition of our inner self: the decisions and commitments we make in shaping our own souls as we traverse life’s path….You have but one life to live. This is not a rehearsal. The clock is ticking; time runs its course. It is up to you to make something of your life. You have only yourself to turn to.  – Guignon 40
We have struggled to free ourselves from external coercive forces, but unfortunately for us, those forces are implicit in a meaningful connection to one’s home, family, and community. In disconnecting from external impositions on our freedom, have unmoored ourselves. The Jewish paradigm for this reality is the call to Abraham: lekh l’kha m’artzekha, mimoladet’kha umibeyt avikha, “leave your land, your home and your family”. (Genesis 12.1) In this command, and in Abraham’s response, we see the uneasy balance of the individual and the need for community: Abraham, accompanied by his wife Sarah, follows the call he hears, which takes them far away from home. But the first thing that the couple does, according to the medieval teacher Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki (better known by his acronym Rashi) is to begin to invite others to join them. Their journey as the first Jews can only be meaningful if they create a community.
This is the deeper spiritual meaning of exile: it occurs when we are distanced from a sense of belonging, and from a sense of home. We are in exile from each other when we trust less and less in our neighbors and even those with whom we join in community groups, to the point that not everyone is willing to have their name and address listed even in a synagogue’s internal directory of members. We are in exile from each other when we insist on our own individual rights over the common welfare, making personal choices which detract from the common good. And we are in exile from each other when we cling to the belief that we are actually independent individuals, ignoring complex human networks of production, distribution and social organization upon which we depend every time we turn on an electric light, drop by the store to buy bread, or proceed through a green light in our automobile, confident that the traffic at the crossroad has stopped.
And we are painfully in exile from each other when we lose touch with old friends because someone moved away; when we cannot find the time to nurture friendships because everyone is so busy; when we lose family connections after a harsh word or a misunderstanding is allowed to go unhealed. We will not become ourselves without clearing up tangled connections between us and those others upon whom our physical and psychological well-being depends – and we will not find clarity until we learn that we are not  and cannot ever be alone.
It is paradoxical to consider that to become ourselves as individuals, we must be willing to reach outside the self and commit ourselves to the others with whom we interact in our every day lives, those who make up our community. Yet, as Carol Gilligan  pointed out in her In a Different Voice, the real paradox is that we consider ourselves first and foremost individuals, when our first existential reality in the world is one of ultimate connectedness – the umbilical cord and the breast, upon which we depended, once upon a time, for our very lives.
The longing in human nature which is understood by psychology to be a desire to return to the idyll of early childhood, characterized as it is by the certainty of being safe and cared for by others, is expressed religiously in terms of gan Eden, the primeval garden of wholeness and peace that we remember in our past, and search for in our future, throughout our lives.
We will not be happy there alone: lo tov heyot adam levado, “it is not good for the human being to be alone.” (Genesis 2.18) Judaism envisions the future garden as a place we work toward together, within the covenant relationship with share with God, into which we entered together. It requires of us our full presence, our full commitment to the journey, “with all your intellect, with all your passion, with all of what you are”.  (Deuteronomy 6.5)

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: We Need More Light

The days are as long as they get right now, yet we need light desperately: the light of hope, the light of healing, the light of happiness, all obscured in the horror of realizing that our own Federal government is operating concentration camps full of children and adults who are innocent of any crime.

 

For us Jews with our community history, this particular transgression of the current administration is the most traumatic of all the long list of the sins it commits. Our help will come from the same place: our history, our culture, and our community. We know more than anyone that when the world becomes a chaotic and frightening place, individuals who hold on to their integrity and continue to do the right thing are the shining lights that save our sanity and inspire us to hold on.

 

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha begins with light, that of the menorah in the Mishkan, the sacred space at the center of the Israelite wilderness encampment.

 

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר֖ ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

HaShem spoke to Moses, saying

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Tell Aaron: “When you set up the light, let the seven lamps shed their light at the front of the menorah.”

BaMidbar 8.1-2

 

This simple instruction seems obvious – set up the light so it best illuminates the room – yet it must be stated. Our ancestors read such mitzvot carefully, looking for the deeper symbolic meaning that would justify an otherwise simplistic and easy to overlook command. What they found is a metaphor for our Jewish community.

 

The menorah symbolizes the Jewish people. It has seven branches, symbolizing different paths to G*d, but is made of a single gold piece. The various differences and qualities do not detract from the unity. This means that diversity need not lead to division Each individual talent should lead to a synthesis of different views and behavior. – Rabbi Menakhem Mendel Schneerson

 

Throughout our history, community is central to Jewish survival. Yet Jewish community does not move in lockstep, but in as many directions as there are menorah branches, if not more:

 

  1. different spiritual practices: some love Torah study, some love prayer, some love service to others.
  2. different expressions of belonging: some give money, some in-kind, some make a visit or volunteer to fill a community need.
  3. different personal needs
  4. different perspectives and ways of knowing
  5. different expressions of self
  6. different Jewish backgrounds
  7. different feelings about Israel

 

It is obvious that there are many differences among us, and that these differences are part of what make us so special as a religious community.

 

What is not so obvious is how to fulfill the mitzvah of making sure that each of our lights is carefully centered toward the front of the space we share.

 

Are we patient enough to hear out someone who thinks differently? are we respectful of other’s sense of self and need? Most of all, do we remember to give each other the benefit of our doubt before judging?

 

During the summer our Talmud class studies Pirke Avot, a selection of ancient rabbinical ethical “sound bites.” Among them we find this:

 

Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.

 

I am proud that our congregation is not only a member of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, we are 25% LGBTQIA+ identified. During this month when we are offered the opportunity to consider more deeply what it is like to be queer (Pride month), or what it is like to be a person of color (June 19th was Juneteenth), the real significance of the mitzvah of the menorah seems to be this:

 

Be like Aaron, noting how each member of our beloved community shines their light. Do what you can to make sure each light shines clear and bright.

 

If you are extroverted and passionate, this means being quiet and assuming that the quiet person will say something that you need to hear.

If you are a cis person, it means graciously offering your personal pronouns so that a trans person won’t feel awkward in their need to do so.

If you are a man, it means thinking carefully about whether you let women be people.

If you are smart, it means remembering that according to Jewish tradition, the truly wise are those who learn from others.

If you are white, it means remembering that not every Jew is.

If you are a born Jew, it means never asking anyone whether they converted.

 

We cannot heal the world, but while we do what we can, our history, our culture and our religious tradition demonstrate the power of acting according to our ethics anyway. Especially under stress, it matters so very much that we still are able to hold hands and face the world together, compassionate and gentle with each other.

 

Let your light shine! and look carefully to help others shine as happily as possible. In all this darkness, we need more light.

Shabbat Matot-Masey: We’re In This Together

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
On this Shabbat we read a double parashah, both Matot and Masey, and at the end of it we finish the Book BaMidbar, the account of much wandering in geography and in relationships.
And in this specific Torah narrative, part of the second year of the Triennial Cycle of reading, we begin with the story of two brothers who decide that they will better off if they separate from the larger family.
The tribes of Reuven and of Gad were herders, and they saw that the land on the east side of the Jordan river was good grazing land. So they said to Moshe, “this land through which we are traveling is good land for grazing. Rather than cross the Jordan river, we prefer to stay on this side and settle here.”  –BaMidbar 32.1-5, excerpted.
It seems a reasonable statement of intent, not unlike the act of the one who gets to camp first and chooses the best spot available for her tent, or the volunteer who joins the moving crew on behalf of a helpless older person but leaves when it suits him. We’re all part of the group, until the individual in each of us emerges to claim our individual status. And it’s all innocent enough, until the desire to take care of oneself becomes après moi le deluge, as King Louis XIV was supposed to have said: after I get mine, who cares what happens?
In times like ours, fear of personal danger or loss may cause us to feel something similar, to hesitate before joining a group to protest, or putting oneself at the front line of a cause. It’s a natural enough human desire, to stay safe and to keep those one loves safe with one – to circle the wagons against the common threat, but to look for the best and safest place among those wagons for oneself.
And so Moshe confronted the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad, saying “will you abandon your family now, when you are needed to help protect and defend the group? Will you betray the people of which you are a part because you have found a separate place to which to escape?” – BaMidbar 32.6, more or less.
Moshe’s point echoes that of Mordecai, the Jew in Persia who confronted the Queen his niece at a similar moment:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. One the contrary, if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your family’s house wil perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position just for this purpose?” – Megillat Esther 4.13-14.
None of us can truly separate ourselves from what is happening all around us. Those people who are homeless are no different from us, and thus all our homes are less secure. Those children who are separated from their parents are our children, and the world of our children is less safe. Those immigrants, people of color, Muslims, trans people, and all other targeted human beings are us, and we are all in this together.
If we have position, privilege, and resources, now is not the time to hoard them, but to hear Mordecai’s question: what have you been given these blessings for? If we would leave the group because there may be a more comfortable reality that presents itself to us, would considering Moshe’s demand change our thoughts? Would you leave your people – your fellow Jews, your companions in Portland citizenry, those who are not your social class but who share your life with you every day?
During the Three Weeks period we are encouraged to reflect upon not our personal faults, as we do on Yom Kippur, but upon our communal failings. What part did each individual play in the fall of the Jerusalem Temple on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av, 2000 years ago? What part does each of us play in the destruction we fear in our own lives?
Neither personal, nor local, nor national borders will protect us from the acts we allow, enable, or fail to stop. This is one of the first lessons of Jewish ethics: that which you do to another affects you as well. But let this also be a reason for hope: when each of us commits to each other, none of us need ever be alone.

Shabbat Naso: Look Me In The Eye

The word that identifies this week’s Torah text is naso, part of the idiom naso et rosh, is correctly translated “take a census,” or, more simply, “count heads.” The actual Hebrew wording is more beautiful; it literally says “lift up the head.” In other words, for our ancestors, to count someone was to look that person in the eye, and to take account of that specific human being.

This parashah begins innocuously enough with a description of the work assigned to different Levite families: Kehat, Gershon, and Merar. Each family unit had a special job in connection with erecting or dismantling the Mishkan and carrying it as well. Only Levites could come this close, and they had to regularly watch to keep themselves free from tum’ah in order to fulfill this duty.

It’s as logical a segue as we will ever find that the Torah’s next subject is that of keeping the Israelites’ camp clean. Anyone experiencing tum’ah or capable of transmitting it to someone else was to be sent outside the dwelling area until the tum’ah could be cleared.

What is tum’ah? It’s a subject we come back to again and again in the Torah. We moderns come to it influenced by interpretations that call it a form of impurity (cue the caricature of the person calling “unclean!” while walking through the village). But if we  meet the ancients on their ground the reality is more nuanced.

It seems likely, according to the academic scholarship on the matter, that most Israelites were tam’eh most of the time, and that was no problem since the only time one needed to be tahor (the opposite condition) was in order to take part in ceremonial aspects of Israelite ritual. To be tam’eh, then, has something to do with one’s ability – or, in this case, inability, to participate in community engaged in ritual.

You are tam’eh if you have just buried someone, or if you have just given birth, or if you experience unusual flow from your reproductive organs. You are tam’eh if you have been in the presence of someone else who is tam’eh. And, interestingly, by virtue of juxtaposition, it seems that you are tam’eh if you wrong one of the people with whom who share your community. According to our text,

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a companion, thus breaking faith with HaShem, 

The next case brought by the Torah – and we are still informed by the principle of juxtaposition, which indicates that this is somehow related to what just came before – this next case describes the situation in which any one of us has wronged another in our community. Note that to do so is much more than simply wronging a fellow human; the Torah insists that to wrong the other in our midst is to ‘מעל בה – literally, to betray HaShem. This is an utterly powerful statement. To wrong another person is to wrong G*d.
It’s interesting to note that here, as in every other case of tum’ah, nothing can be done about it until the state of being – the tum’ah – is recognized. As the verse goes on:
and that person realizes his guilt, that person shall confess the wrong s/he has done. S/he shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who has been wronged. (Numbers 5.7)

Healing the situation is straightforward, the law is clear and easy, but it can only happen after a person realizes that a wrong has been committed. Until this is done, the person who committed the wrong is tam’eh, and is unable to take part in the religious activities of the community. The person wronged is unable to fully participate as well, due to the damage done to that person.

What would our communities be like if we were as careful to sweep tum’ah from, as it were, the midst of our camps, by focusing upon, and righting, the wrongs done among us, each to each other?
Would our U.S. community be required to pay reparations – the value plus one-fifth – to all wronged by our government’s policies – African Americans enslaved, Native Americans slaughtered and robbed, the stranger among us persecuted and oppressed?
Would our Portland community be required to readjust budgets and future planning to pave streets in poor neighborhoods, restore the potential of innocents punished as guilty and people of color sidelined, repair the lives of the marginalized people that should have been protected and served?
What would our own community need to do? How can any of us discern whether we have wronged another in our midst, thus driving the Presence of G*d from us? The way our parashah urges us to take is here in the opening verse: look into the eyes of our companions and really see them, in the sense taught to us by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: to see the other as a presence, deserving of our respect and attention, not a projection of ourselves who ought to already understand us.
Here is one act: our congregation has endorsed a national Jewish campaign to stand up for Trans people at this time of vulnerability for our Trans sisters and brothers. Take a look at all you can join in learning and doing in support of righting this wrong, and sweeping this tum’ah out of our midst: Kavod Akhshav: Dignity for Trans Youth. May it bring the Presence of G*d closer to us all.

On this Shabbat, in a world in which so many are wronged, where the earth itself is crying out its pain, consider that real caring community starts among us, and begins when we lift up our own heads to meet each other’s eyes, so that each of us can say to the other, here, come in: sit down. Share my bread and wine. Let us walk together. Only then can we begin to let down our protective walls and be seen, and only then can we truly see each other. That’s the clean, safe, happy camp the Israelites were trying to create. May we learn to live so in our own days, and may we understand that it is the first step toward the better world we pray for.

Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

ז
  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

….

טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.

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)