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)