Posts Tagged 'Community'

Invitation to Belong: Emor’s Recipe for Community

This week’s reading, Emor, discusses the laws which pertain to priests and the high priest, and various laws which relate to sacrifices. These are followed by a lengthy discussion of the festivals. The portion concludes with the story of a blasphemer who was put to death. It is interesting to me that if you look at all aspects of Emor as a composite we see a definition of community. We have a clear definition of the leadership of the community during the time of the Temple. We have the regulations for convening at the Temple. We even get to see the limits of the community with the story of the blasphemer.

This reminded me of the book Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block. In this book Block encourages a shift in our way of thinking about community so we can bring about the qualities of an authentic sense of belonging. There he writes:

The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together? ( Community: The Structure of Belonging)

Block understands that creating and sustaining a sense of belonging is fundamentally about the experience of community, not about it’s formal structures and mechanisms.

The leader is the convener of these moments of belonging. It is amazing to look back and see how we evolved over time.  What is described here in Emor worked in the time of the Temple. It evolved into something completely different during the Rabbinic period of Jewish life. And as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg argues, we are transitioning into the next epoch in which we will need another kind of leader for us to cultivate the experience of belonging. Rabbi Greenberg puts forward a compelling argument that this next epoch will be defined by lay leadership.

In order for us to be successful in our third phase we will need to follow the Emor recipe.  We will need to define the role of these leaders. We will need to put forward a plan for our regular occasions to convene as  a nation. And yes, even if it seems painful. we will need to define our limits. If we do all of these things we will find a sense of belonging. You are all invited.

Listen to and watch Rabbi Greenberg on the 3rd Epoch of Jewish History


Do Not Separate Yourself

This past week I had the pleasure of going to a number of camps. At one camp I was asked to do a session  with their LIT-Leaders in Training program. This is the program for their eldest campers who are being trained to become staff. After exploring their different leadership styles and how they are needed in different situations we learned a Mishnah from Perkey Avot. Together we learned:

Hillel would say: Do not be separate from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day you die. Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place. Do not say something that is not readily understood in the belief that it will eventually be understood. And do not say “When I am free I will learn,” for perhaps you will never be free. (Perkey Avot 2:5)

The Mishnah reinforced the message that we need to recognize that all different styles of leadership are needed for the community to be successful. We needed to bring their talent to the group.  We cannot be judgmental of the other people before we come to a profound understanding of where they are in their lives. In knowing where they are we will communicate with them more effectively. We need to practice situational leadership  to ensure that we are heard. And of course, the process of learning helps us sharpen our understanding of our own leadership styles which will in turn help the community move forward.

In preparing for that lesson I found another girsa– version of the Mishnah. Instead of it saying “אל תפרוש מן הצבור – Do not be separate from the community” it said “אל תפרוש עצמך מן הצבור- Do not separate yourself from the community”. Most times the Mishnah is already translated this second way, what is the implications of this extra word?

It is one thing to see yourself as separate from your community, it is another to have to separate yourself into different parts in relation to your community. In many of our lives we are forces to be different people to different social crowds. Camp is a very special community in which we are all encouraged to strive for a certain unity of being. In unifying the separate parts of ourselves we are able to bring a better version of ourselves to make a better community.

In the wake of the landmark Supreme Court Decision to strike down DOMA and Prop 8 it is important to celebrate our nations move toward a more perfect union with equality for all. With these laws out of our way  less of us are being asked to “separate ourselves”. The question now is, will more of us bring our whole selves to our communities? We have the opportunity to make better communities, but there is still a lot of work left to do to make a more perfect community.

Climate Proof

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, before the 10th plague and Israelite exodus from Egypt we read about the Korban Pesach. There we read:

3 Speak to the entire congregation of Israel, saying: In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; 4 and if the household be too little for a lamb, then he and his next-door-neighbor shall take one according to the number of the souls; according to every man’s eating you shall make your count for the lamb. ( Exodus 12: 3-4)

Why did they do this ritual at this moment? The sacrifice has come to be understood as the yearly commemoration of our emergency exodus from Egypt, but this clearly happened before we left.

On one level it can be interpreted as an act of defiance and commitment. There are those who understood that the Egyptians saw the lamb as a deity. Killing the image of the Egyptian God would be a point of no return. This action spoke of the Israelite commitment to leave. On another level this helps us understand the power of ritual itself. The Korban Pesach is not a memory of our leaving, but rather what we did before we left.  Where the Matzah speaks of our not being ready to leave, this sacrifice speaks of our preparation for leaving. It forced them to organize themselves in eating units.

In a recent article in the New Yorker Eric Klinenberg wrote about how after Hurricane Sandy governments are working on ‘climate proofing’ cities are upgrading ‘lifeline systems’.  Some of the effort are high-tech (power, transit) and some lower intensity, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them. In light of this article, it seems that this first Korban Pesach was low intensity means of organizing the community in preparation for their emergency exit from Egypt.

UJA Federation in partnership with many local synagogues has done amazing work in responding to Sandy, but this week I have to ask are we organized enough for the next emergency. Is our community ‘climate proof’?

Read more:

UJA Federation page about responses to Sandy @
Provide help for those in need by donating to UJA-Federation of NY’s Hurricane Relief Fund @
Learn about volunteer opportunities to help people devastated by Hurricane Sandy @

Identity Marker

At the end of Shelach, this week’s Torah Portion, we read that God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to make for themselves fringes (in Hebrew, צִיצִת, tzitzit) on each of the corners of their garments. There we read:

 ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of Tekhelet. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray;that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God. (Numbers 15:38-41 )

From this we could learn that even today we are supposed to wear these garments,  look at the fringes, recall the commandments, and observe them.

I have had tzitzit on my mind since the UJA-Federation of New York recently presented the findings from the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011. This was a comprehensive study of the world’s largest and most diverse Jewish community outside Israel. I have been thinking of two main issues. One is the diversity of identity markers of the  contemporary Jewish community and the second is the rise of Orthodox population. It is obvious how thinking about the tremendous growth of the Orthodox community would lead me to think about tzitzit ( that is some great branding). To relate to the second issue I will have to deal with another question from this week’s Torah portion. What is this Tekhelet? 

On this in  the Talmud  quotes Rabbi Meir as saying:

Why particularly Tekhelet [for the mitzvah of tzitzit] from among all other colored materials? Because Tekhelet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Holy Throne. As it says, “And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity (Exodus 24:10),” and as it is written, “in appearance like sapphire stone was the semblance of a throne” (Ezekiel 1:26).(Sotah 17b)

So Tekhelet seems to be some shade of aqua sky blue. More important then it being a color  it is color code for a set of references that go from the mundane string adornment of cloth all the way to God on high. Over the years we lost the snail from which we harvested the dye to get this specific color. Recently there are those who believe that they rediscovered this snail, but for many more this pigment is still understood to be lost. So we are left with just the white strings to remind us of God and God’s commandments. But still for most Jews, this entire custom  is lost.  And beyond this custom, for many this costume is alienating. Yes, tzitzit  are identified as the garb of Orthodox Jews, but have the rest of us lost the thread of the idea? ( Sorry I just could not resist the pun.)

So we know that the Jewish population is growing. And while within that number the Orthodox population is on the rise, there are still many of us who are and will never be Orthodox Jews.  So while tzitzit will not work for most of ushow do we identify ourselves?  What are the visual cues in our lives that lead us to go from what we wear to a consciousness of big ideas to acting in service of  our highest ideals? First we need to identify these big ideas. When we know that we can work our way down from that throne to other ways those ideas are represented in the world to what we wear on a daily basis.

The lesson of tzitzit is that we need to tether our lived lives to the big ideas or they will get away from us. It might have been easier to talk about an idea called Jewish identity then wrestle with the fact that our larger Jewish family does not share any common practices. If we want to educate the next generation of Jews we need to get over this fear and go back to this lesson of tzitzit. Good education is not just theory and idea or just practice and dress codes. Like tzitzit it needs to connect these factors. We need to train the next generation in specific practices that are linked to big ideas. We need to stop  just talking about the nebulous concept of Jewish identity that is not manifest in behavior. And we cannot be content with practices for their own sake that are not in linked to big ideas. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to move past the old theoretical  identity markers toward new-old  real-life adornment that mark our highest ideals. What are going to be the next generation’s tzitzit?

Populist Torah

At the end of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, we read that we should make an altar of earth and not of stone (Exodus 20:21-22). It seems to make sense that in response to our having just received the Torah we would feel the drive to respond to God’s revelation with sacrifice. But, why the commandment to make alters out of earth and not stone?

I think an answer to this question is found in Yitro’s critique of Moses which itself serves as the introduction to the giving of the Torah. Moses is sitting all day adjudicating God’s law for the people. Yitro says:

The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out and you are well as this people who are with you for this matter is too hard for you. You will not be able to do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)

At the core Yitro is telling Moses to reveal God’s Torah to all the people directly. Torah needs no agency.

The centrality of earthen alters over hewn stone seems to reflect a populist notion of devotion. Everyone should have access to this response, not just those who have the money or the physical strength to make a stone structure. Everyone should have access to saying thank you to God just as everyone should have access to Torah itself. Neither Torah nor a response to it is in Heaven; they are both in reach. In a world with Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook every aspect of knowledge is within reach. The more I learn about Jewish history the more I want to say thank you. Why not find new ways to learn about our heritage? My challenge stands, just as Yitro, that we all find some good people to join in learning Torah. While Torah is not in heaven it is much easier to reach in the context of a community. And the best part is with the help of the internet, we are no longer limited to finding community in the context of the stone buildings of our institutions. Our community might be right there in our backyard.

Redeemable Building

Why did we merit redemption from Egypt? It would seem that it was foretold to Abraham that they would be redeemed.  But there are still a number of Midrashim  that explore how the  Israelites own merits redemption. Many of the reasons seem to be around their retaining particular mitzvot and symbols of Jewish identity.  Rav Huna said in the name of Bar-Kappara (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5) that we did not change our names or our language, we did not speak lashon ha-ra, and everyone observed the laws of arayot (forbidden relationships). And yet another midrash (Midrash Lekach Tov on Parshat Va’eira) explores if we were redeemed because we retains  distinctive clothing. Most of these cases seems to have to do with with their words/names. How do words create the precondition to redemption?

I think this is interesting when we juxtapose it with the story of the generation of the Tower of Babel. They wanted to make a great name for themselves and they all spoke one language. For some reason similar behaviors were met with very different outcomes. For this generation after Noah, they were met with destruction of their life work, confounding of their common language, and dispersal throughout the world. For the Israelites it also spoke to the end of their labor of building, but Egypt still has those landmarks. We still have our names, language, and we still have one homeland.

We move from Exodus from Egypt in this week’s Torah portion to next week’s Torah portion when we will be standing as Sinai as “one nation with one heart”. In this week’s Torah portion as we are leaving Pharaoh is in hot pursuit. We read, ” Egypt was journeying after them” (Exodus 14:10) On this Rashi comments that this verb ‘was journeying’ is in singular because they were with “one heart as one man”.   The comparison is robust. Common purpose and unity seems redeemable and not uniformity. We are never really building buildings, we are always trying to build communities. We build community with the words we use. It is in these communities that names have meaning. Community is where many of us will find enduring meaning and maybe even our own redemption.

– I am sorry that a draft of this got posted by accident.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 245 other subscribers

Archive By Topic

%d bloggers like this: