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 Tetzaveh: It’ll Cost You

Our parashat hashavua (the parashah, “reading” or “portion” for this shavua, “week”; notice that the h changes to a t when parashah is modified by the specific week’s readingis Tetzaveh, “[you shall] command”.

The parashah begins with a grammatical anomaly noted by the famous Torah teacher Nehama Lebowitz. Usually a parashah begins with the familiar phrase Speak unto the people of Israel, and say to them….. This phrase precedes the specific command. In this case, we have instead G-d’s word coming to Moshe as

You yourself command the people of Israel (Exodus 27.20)

Then, unlike all the other places in Torah that we could mention which go on to specify a command such as bring Me – sacrifices, gifts of the heart for the building of the Mishkan, and more – the verse continues

to bring you 

The subject of the verse is pure beaten olive oil for lighting, for a lamp to burn continually. (still Exodus 27.20)

This is the lamp indicated: the seven-branched menorah. This most ancient of Jewish symbols is attested throughout Israeli archeological sites. This powerful symbol of light kept perpetually kindled was a beacon, more than simply visually, for our people through the course of much darkness.

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What is the way in which we are commanded to keep this lamp alight? Our teacher Nehama offers the commentary of prior Rabbis and Sages, focusing upon one verse, the first verse of the parashah.

Why does G-d say you yourself and to bring you in this parashah of all parashiot? There are at least two possible answers:

1. Moshe’s name does not appear in this parashah, alone of all the parashiot of the Torah which include him (that would be 4 out of the 5 books). Perhaps this signals his feeling diminished, because he knows now that he will not be the High Priest – that job goes to his brother. Here, G-d reassures Moshe that his is really the superior position, since he relays the commands that Aaron must follow. In this particular case, that point is underscored by having Moshe stand in, as it were, for G-d.

2. This is not about Moshe at all. The words you yourself are without a pronoun because the command is for you yourself, and I myself, and all Jews. Our obligation is to bring ourselves. Where? Toward G-d, via the light that we are commanded here to kindle, in company with all those who travel our spiritual path. Bring yourself, and help to bring others, for although there is an important individual link we each seek to experience to life, there is for Jews also and always the mystery of how we experience G-d’s presence only in community.

Now, about the command itself: from Sifre Naso, a collection of ancient interpretation, we find several levels of human context. First, the idea of eternal loyalty to the Word of G-d, implied in the regular lighting of a symbolic lamp, which must be tended twice a day at the very least.

“A command [the word tzivui, from the parashah’s name Tetzaveh) implies now and for all time.”

And then more, shall we say, down to earth comments about the implications of the word “command”:

“Rabbi Judah ben Batira stated: ‘command’ implies extra enthusiasm…..Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai stated: ‘command’ invariably occurs in the context of monetary loss.”

Between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon there is an entire world of human religious behavior. Enthusiasm and monetary loss; are they poles or does one imply the other? At the very least, enough enthusiasm for anything is going to cost you: just look at the price of a child’s sports or arts enthusiasm (uniform, instruments, lessons, shows or games….) and this is not less true for adults. Anything worth being enthusiastic over will demand a price from us.

This is the Jewish path: it demands b’khol levavkha, b’khol naf’shekha, uv’khol m’odekha, “all your mind, all your emotions, all your resources”. (Deuteronomy 6.5, and also found as part of the Shema in the siddur). There are days when we fulfill mitzvot as if they were delightful good deeds, with enthusiasm, feeling good about ourselves and our Jewish ethics. And there are days when we must be reminded that we are obligated beyond our comfort level.

Certainly, our enthusiasm for our Jewish community demands time, talent and money from us. There are days when we don’t count the cost because of our delight; other days we may need to be reminded that we are obligated to nurture and strengthen it. If Jewish community is to exist, we all have to bring our enthusiasm and our monetary contributions.

In sociological studies of Jewish baby boomers it has been noted that the only religious paths which are strong in our post-modern Western society are those which expect excellence and commitment. We expect the best of our schools, our leaders, and our society – why would we settle for less in our religious community? For a generation, Jewish leadership tried to make it as easy as possible to keep Jews attached to religious communities – changing holiday observance to the nearest convenient Shabbat, for example, or refusing to make strong statements about ethics in society that might alienate some. And what we have found is that the half-serious practice of Judaism produces half-serious Jews who cannot stand strong when the winds of uncertainty and stress challenge them. Obligation to excellence apparently nurtures stronger and more meaningful lives.

It’s still okay to moan about it, of course….on our way to showing up and being counted. Each one of us – you yourself – must see ourselves as obligated, whether enthusiastically on any given day or not. Each one of us is necessary if we are to keep that lamp alight.

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