In the book Sacred Intentions, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky says that within the Jewish community, we depend on one another. This mutual dependence is what unites us and gives us strength. We are there for each other because our togetherness makes it possible for us to stand and be strong.
The Mishnah tells us “Do not separate yourself from the Community” for we are obligated to participate in the work of the community even though we are not required to see its completion. Furthermore, we need not personally benefit or receive credit for the work that we contribute to the whole.
According to Rabbi Lori Forman, Judaism is especially cognizant of the relationship between individuals and the community. In our highly individualized society, it is all too easy to remove ourselves from the community. After all, our days are busy dealing with our individual needs as well as the needs of our employees, our constituents, our friends and family. And, these commitments take a lot of energy. Yet when we work together with others to solve a communal problem, we commit ourselves to being part of something grander than ourselves. Granted, this takes time, patience, and creative thinking. But, our tradition does not let us off the hook because the task is difficult. One Midrash says that “At a time when the community is in need” one should not say, “I will go home and peace be to you,” but rather one should “participate in alleviating the community’s troubles.”
In this week’s Torah portion Vayikra, we are inundated with instructions regarding animal sacrifices which are, at times, painful, to read. And, yet, might we take this idea of sacrifice, of giving up something of value, as a metaphor for behavior in our own lives? Might we glean from this parsha that our unique wisdom might be given through sacrifice for the good of the community? According to the Talmud, a person who has knowledge has everything, and if we have everything, might we not share with others who have less?
In his book “Finding a Spiritual Home,” Rabbi Sydney Schwarz profiles the ever growing number of cutting edge synagogues that are coming to understand the particular tastes, inclinations, and values of the new American Jew. These congregations are beginning to break the mold of the out-dated synagogue-center and are beginning to chart the course of the next stage of the American synagogue. It does the Jewish people a disservice for these ground breaking institutions to not willingly and wholeheartedly share both the successes and challenges they encounter on the path to innovation.
The following story is a Chasidic tale edited and translated by Arthur Green and Barry W. Holtz .
Once in a tropical country, a certain splendid bird,
more colorful than any that had ever been seen,
was sighted at the top of the tallest tree.
The bird’s plumage contained within it
all the colors in the world.
But the bird was perched so high
that no single person
could ever hope to reach it.
When news of the bird reached the ears of the king,
he ordered that a number of men
try to bring the bird to him.
They were to stand on one another’s shoulders,
until the highest man could reach the bird
and bring it to the king.
The men assembled near the tree,
but while they were standing
balanced on one another’s shoulders,
some of those near the bottom decided to wander off.
As soon as the first man moved,
the entire chain collapsed,
injuring several of the men.
Still the bird remained uncaptured.
The men had doubly failed the king.
For even greater than his desire to see the bird
was his wish to see his people so closely joined to one another.
When the going gets tough, or cumbersome, or time consuming, or just plain inconvenient, some of us, like the California rabbi might choose to walk away from the very community we are trying to help. I encourage all of you to see the value in the mutual dependence that brings strength to the Jewish community. And I urge you to commit to sharing and contributing your insights and observations freely and selflessly.