Jews and Community

 What does it mean to be part of a community?

[Yom Kippur 2005]

1.         A Fundamental Principle

a.         Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community.

            -           Avot 2:5

b.         Of what "communities" are you a member?

2.         Why you must participate and do your part.

a.         All Israelites are responsible for one another.

            -           (Talmud) Shevuot 39a

b.         What one Christian does is his own responsibility.  What one Jew does is thrown back to all Jews.

            -           Ann Frank

c.         And Mordecai...gave...the copy of the writing of the decree that was given at Shushan to destroy them...to Esther...to charge her that she should go in unto the king, to make supplication...for her people....

And Esther spoke..."Whosoever...shall come to the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death, except such to whom the king extends the golden scepter...."

Then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther, "Think not...that you will escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews....For if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then shall...deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house shall be destroyed; and who knows whether you are not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

            -           Esther 4:7-14

d.         We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.

            -           Elie Wiesel

e.         And the Lord said to Cain: "Where is Abel your brother?"  And he said: "I know not; Am I my brother's keeper?" 

            -           Genesis 4:9

3.         To how many religious communities may a Jew belong?

a.         I have Jewish roots and Buddhist wings.

            -           Marc Lieberman

b.         To believe in two Rebbes is bigamy.

            -           R. Aharon Perlow of Karlin

4.         Our community must include other peoples.

a.         We support the non-Jewish poor along with the poor of Israel, and visit the non-Jewish sick along with the sick of Israel, and bury the non-Jewish dead along with the dead of Israel, for the sake of peace.  

            -           (Talmud) Gittin 61a

b.         A first step in the process of healing is for Jews to get over the delusion that the State of Israel provides the guarantee Never Again....The sad fact is this: There is no solution to the Jewish problem that isn't simultaneously a solution to the world's problem.  There will never be an end to Jewish vulnerability until there is a world of justice, caring, ethical and spiritual sensitivity, mutual recognition, and ecological responsibility.

            -           Michael Lerner

c.         In Germany, they first came for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.  Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.  Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.  Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

            -           Pastor Martin Niemoller

5.         Does preserving a community institution justify an injustice?

a.         A woman came to see Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the N'tziv, a leading sage in Lithuania in the 19th Century).  She had brought with her a chicken, and asked him to examine it because she was uncertain if it was kosher.  He examined it carefully, with several of his students watching, and then at last he declared: "It is kosher."  She said: "My husband will be happy to hear that, for he also thought it was kosher." 

Soon after she left, the Rabbi asked one of his students to go after her and fetch her back.  The student returned with the woman and her chicken.  Once again the Rabbi examined the chicken, and then he said: "I am sorry, but this chicken is not kosher.  I was wrong the first time.  It may not be eaten." 

The crestfallen woman left.  The Rabbi's students were mystified and asked him for an explanation, finding it hard to believe he was wrong the first time.  He said to them: "Never fear, the first decision was correct; the chicken is fit to eat.  But had I not called her back, she might have gone home convinced of her husband's ability to make fine decisions of Jewish law.  And then the next time she was in doubt, she would let him decide rather than consulting proper rabbinic authority.  That would be far worse than losing a chicken that is really kosher.  So I reversed my decision." 

[Is it right for the Rabbi to choose process over substance, the future over the present, and deception over candor?  How far can a leader go to preserve the community?]

6.         Community connects with past and future.

a.         [Moses says:] Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath; But with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.

            -           Deuteronomy 29:13-14

b.         Whoever teaches his son teaches not alone his son but also his son's son, and so on to the end of all generations.  

            -           (Talmud) Kiddushin 30a

c.         The Bible is a seed.  God is the sun, but we are the soil.  Every generation is expected to bring forth new understanding and new realization.

            -           Abraham Joshua Heschel

d.         The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets and continued by their descendants are now entrusted to us.  We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come.  We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of ages.

            -           Abraham Joshua Heschel

e.         Two men walked past the ruins of an ancient synagogue.  One sighed and said: "How much money have my ancestors invested here?"  His friend gently rebuked him: "How many souls have your ancestors invested here?"

            -           Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 8:9

f.          What are we doing to assure a Jewish future?

7.         How far must we go to share our assets with the world community?

a.         A wealthy man gave a party at his home, laying out 20 silver settings for his invited guests.  Yet as the last guest came, there was no setting for him.  The host was very upset, and rose and said to the assembly: "I know 20 settings were placed to provide for all of you.  If one of you has none, the only explanation is that someone has taken more than his share."  So it is that our Host, the Almighty, has prepared enough of everything for each one of His guests.  If one person is not able to manage, someone must have taken two shares.  Every person has been provided for on this earth.  Therefore, "Open wide your hand to him" (Deu 15:11).  Why should you have two portions and he none?

            -           Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Dranz (the Maggid) of Dubno

8.         The synagogue as community.

a.         When someone says to me: "I tried to get involved in your synagogue, but I found it to be full of hypocrites," I can usually resist the temptation to tell him: "That's all right, there's always room for one more."  What I say instead is: "A synagogue that admitted only saints would be a lot like a hospital that admitted only healthy people.  It would be a lot easier to run, and a more pleasant place to be, but I'm not sure we would be doing the job we are here to do.

            -           Rabbi Harold Kushner

b.         In congregational worship...the congregating is more important than the words we speak.  Something miraculous happens....In our coming together, we create the mood and the moment in which God is present.

            -           Rabbi Harold Kushner

c.         For Congregation Etz Chayim:

            i.          What affirmative obligations does each member have?

                        a)         Study, pray, engage in acts of kindness?

                        b)         Provide an acceptable donation?

                        c)         Participate in governance?

            ii.         What actions would diminish or negate membership?

            iii.        What changes could increase and improve the sense of community at our synagogue?

9.         In a true community, great rivals find pathways to love and peace.

a.         Although the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai are in disagreement on questions of marriage and betrothal in cases involving rivals, sisters, an old bill of divorce, a doubtfully married woman, a woman whom her husband had divorced and who stayed with him overnight in an inn, money, valuables, etc., the School of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women of the families of the School of Hillel, nor did the School of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the School of Shammai.  This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship to one another as in "Love truth and peace" (Zech 8:19).  

            -           (Talmud) Yevamot 14b

10.       Community as unending opportunity for unknown connections.

a.         Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle....No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle....Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else's puzzle ....And when you present your piece which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger from the Most High.

            -           Rabbi Laurence Kushner

b.         Two men separated by space and time can nevertheless take part in an exchange.  One asks a question and the other, elsewhere and later, asks another, unaware that his question is an answer to the first.

            -           Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

11.       Do we relate to God as part of a community or as an individual?

a.         Shall one man sin, and will You be angry with all the congregation?

            -           Numbers 16:22

b.         [God says:] You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to myself.

            Now, therefore, if you obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a particular treasure to me above all people....

            And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

[In every case, "you" is in the plural form.]

            -           Exodus 19:4-6

c.         The Ten Commandments consistently refer to "you" in the singular.

            -           Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5

12.       Community as a source of Tikkun Olam.

a.         Religion is community.  It is the way people learn to relate to each other and to belong to each other in truly human ways....When a retarded child is born, the religious question we should ask is not "Why does God permit mental retardation in His world?" but "What sort of community should we become so that mental retardation need not be a barrier to a child's enjoying a gratifying life?"  

            -           Rabbi Harold Kushner, Who Needs God

b.         Why do I need to be part of a community....Can't I be a healer on my own?  No, because part of the healing...is the overcoming of ...selfishness...and the creation of a non-oppressive community in which we can learn to take care of one another.... We need to heal the extreme individualism of this society, just as in previous eras we needed to heal the conformism and repressiveness of an excessively dominating communitarian ethos.

            -           Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal

13.       Ultimate wisdom is found in the community.

a.         The question arose: When the day before Passover fell on Shabbat, and people came to sacrifice the Pascal lamb, could they carry their slaughtering knives to the Temple area?  No one knew, and Hillel himself could not remember how his teachers had ruled.  But he advised: "Let the people do as they are accustomed.  If they are not prophets, they are the descendants of prophets."  Once he saw what the people did, he remembered what he had been taught.             -           (Talmud) Pesachim 66a

b.         R. Nehorai said: Wander forth to a home of the Torah - and say not that the Torah will come after you - for there your associates will establish you in the possession of it; and lean not upon your own understanding.

            -           Avot 4:18

14.       Community as a higher priority than family.

a.         Whenever charity officials saw R. Elazar, they hid from him because he would insist on giving them all the money he had with him.  One day he went to the marketplace to acquire a dowry for his daughter.  The charity officials saw him and tried to hide as usual but it was too late.  R. Elazar ran to catch up with them and asked what they were about.  They said they were gathering a dowry for an orphaned boy and girl, so they could marry and begin life together.  "Upon my soul, they come before my daughter," said R. Elazar, and gave them all the money he was carrying, except for one zuz, which he kept in his pocket and then used to buy wheat which he left in his storeroom.  His wife asked his daughter: "What did father buy you?"  The daughter did not know, but said: "Whatever he bought he put in the storeroom."  Curious, his wife went to open the storeroom door to see for herself, but she could not push it in, and noticed wheat coming out of the door socket.  She understood that the room must be bursting with wheat.  Her daughter ran with excitement to the House of Study to tell R. Elazar the wonderful news.  "Come and see what your good Friend has done for you," she told him.  He said: "Upon my oath, the wheat is sacrosanct, taboo for you" (for having come by a Divine miracle, it was a sacred trust for feeding the poor).  "You can have a share in it like any other poor person of our land - no more!"  

-           (Talmud) Taanit 24a

15.       Community opinion can be more important than God's.

a.         This was the oven of Aknai....On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!"  Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place - others affirm, four hundred cubits. "No proof can be brought from a carob-tree," they retorted. Again he said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it". Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards - "No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it," whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: "When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?" Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: "Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!" But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven." What did he mean by this? - Said R. Jeremiah: "That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, 'After the majority must one incline.'

            R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: "What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?" - He replied: "He laughed [with joy], saying, 'My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'"

            -           (Talmud) Bava Metzia 59b

16,       Community as essential for life.

a.         Israel's farms were endangered by drought.  Choni the scholar was asked to pray.  He drew a circle in the sand, stood within it, and said: "O Master of the world, your children have turned their faces to me....I vow by Your great name that I shall not budge from here until you have compassion on your children."  An abundant rain came. 

            Thereafter, Choni asked a man planting a carob-tree: "Since it does not bear fruit for 70 years, are you certain of living so long as to eat of it?"  The man replied: "I found the world provided with carob-trees; as my forefathers planted them for me, I likewise plant them for my descendants."  Choni sat, and ate some bread.  He fell asleep, and some rocks rose to cover him and he became hidden from sight.  He slept for 70 years.  On awakening, he saw what looked to be the same man gathering carobs from the same tree and eating them.  Choni asked: "Do you know who planted this carob-tree?"  The man replied: "My grandfather." Choni went to his house and asked: "Does Choni's son still live?"  They replied: "No, but his grandson does."  He left and went to the House of Study, where he heard a rabbi saying: "Our studies are not as clear as in the time of Choni, for he used to solve all the difficulties."  Choni said: "I am Choni," but they did not believe him or pay him deference due him.  Choni became anguished, and prayed for Heavenly mercy, and died.  Rava said: "This is an example of the popular adage: 'Either companionship or death.'"  

            -           (Talmud) Taanit 23a

17.       Community as connectedness.

a.         How much trouble Adam had to go to just to get some bread to eat!  He had to plow, sow, reap, sheave, thresh, winnow, grind, sift, knead, and bake.  And then he ate.  And I simply get up and find all of these done for me.  [And in the Torah there are 10 mitzvot which apply to these 10 tasks.  And so the blessing before bread contains 10 words.  So we may remember from where our bread comes, and from Whom.] 

            How much trouble did Adam go to in order to find clothes to wear!  He sheared, cleaned the wool, beat it spun it, weaved it - and then he had clothing to wear.  And I simply get up and find all these done for me.  All kinds of craftsmen anxiously come to my door, and I simply get up and find these done for me....

            What does a good guest say?  "How much trouble has my host gone to just for me!  How much meat and wine and cake has he brought for me!  All his trouble, he has done just for me!"  But what does a bad guest say?  "How much trouble has my host gone to?  I ate one slice of bread, I ate one piece of meat, I drank one cup of wine.  All his trouble, he has done just for his wife and children."  

            -           (Talmud) Berachot 58a   (Ben Zoma)

18.       Is the community greater or smaller than any one individual?

a          We do not think that a human being is valuable because he is a member of the human race; it is rather the opposite: the human race is valuable because it is composed of human beings.

            -           Abraham Joshua Heschel

19.       Community helps in both good times and bad.

a.         A joy shared is doubled; a sorrow shared is halved.

            -           Yiddish Proverb

20.       The high merit of working to maintain community.

a.         Communal activity is as meritorious as studying Torah.

            -           Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 5:1

21.       To be part of the Jewish community is to be a witness.

a          Israel is not a people of definers but a people of witnesses.

            -           Abraham Joshua Heschel

22.       Community as legacy.

a.         Elijah the Gaon [of Vilna] passed away, and left behind books....Israel Baal Shem [Tov] passed away, and left behind men.

            -           Samuel Abba Horodetzky

 

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