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Sep 27 2012

Power of Community

Originally published in Jewish News of Greater Phoenix Online. September 21, 2012.

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Vayelech, Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30

Moses’ life is drawing to a close. With his final breath, he encourages Joshua and the people to be strong and fearless, and to maintain their awe of the Holy One. What is the source of this communal power? In Deuteronomy 31:12, Moses establishes a ritual. The whole community comes together to share words of Torah – men and women, children and strangers. The power of the community is the foundation of Jewish life.

At this season of the year, we each, individually, contemplate our legacy. We imagine ourselves in Moses’ situation, we imagine that our lives could end at any moment (as, indeed, they could), and we reflect on the values for which we would hope to be remembered. We engage in this process in the context of community. These holidays are wryly known as the “Hi” holidays – we say “hi” to people we love and renew the important relationships in our lives.

I was having dinner with friends, and a woman who works from home commented that when she wants to take a break from work and have a moment of human connection, she turns to Facebook. Another diner at the table was appalled – “THAT’S not a human connection!” While Facebook is a great vehicle for staying in touch and sharing updates on the goings-on in our lives, it is, in fact, not a substitute for the human touch and the caring concern of friends, family and community. Jane Howard puts it this way, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

During these days of awe we pray for forgiveness, we beg God – slach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu  – forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. The word m’chal comes from the root meaning mechol, a circle. When we are hurt, the circle of our lives is broken. Forgiveness repairs that breach so that we once again have a sense of wholeness. No wonder we form our challah into circular shapes, as we return on this Sabbath of Return to reconnect with our essential selves and with our beloved community.

We need each other to create a safe, caring and just world for ourselves and our families. We need each other to pass our values on to our children. We need the strength that comes from a spiritual community.

Every Jew has a place in the Jewish community. In every mitzvah we perform, we are in relationship – with God, with each other. The story is told of a young Chasid who complained to his rebbe that he was depressed. He felt alone, there was illness and a business setback in his family, and he was afraid that God didn’t care about him. The man was sitting with the rebbe in front of the fireplace, and the fire was just about to go out. There were only scattered embers in the fireplace. The rebbe took the poker and stoked the embers into a heap. There was a burst of flame, and new warmth emerged from the fire. “You see?” the rebbe asked as he gently stoked the fire. “Do you see what happened when I gathered the embers closer together? The fire came back to life. But when the embers were scattered and separated from each other, they weakened and almost died out. It’s the same with people, you know,” the rebbe continued. “When we are alone and separated or disconnected from each other, our spirits are in danger of dying out. But when we huddle together, we receive warmth and comfort from one another, and our hope is renewed.”

Living a Jewish life is about service and commitment. It is about binding ourselves voluntarily to Torah ideals and actions. “What we do as individuals,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is a trivial episode. What we attain as Israel causes us to become a part of eternity.”

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