One of the questions I always ask my conversion students is “If your future great-grandchild was here today and asked you why you chose to become Jewish, what would you say?” I asked this to one of my students, Johnathan, who told me the following story: Johnathan is an actor. Growing up in rural South Carolina, his talent and passion made him feel misunderstood, lonesome and isolated.
When he was 10, his father took him to New York to see a Broadway show. He sat, captivated, for three hours, and when the show was over, he didn’t want to leave. He felt, “These are my people, and I’m home.”
Johnathan told me that the only other time he ever felt that way was the first time he went to shul. It was Yom Kippur at his Jewish girlfriend’s (who is now his wife’s) synagogue in New York. As a non-Jew, he expected to feel alien there. Instead, a welcoming congregation treated him like he was a regular. He even got invited to several break-fasts. By the time the service was over, he didn’t want to leave, because he felt “These are my people, and I’m home.” That experience made Johnathan want to become Jewish.
Now, there is not necessarily anything Jewishly unique about Johnathan’s story. After all, he felt much the same way at that Broadway show as he did in synagogue. On some level, Johnathan’s story is a generally human story, just placed in a uniquely Jewish context. I could have told the exact same story, but with a different protagonist finding a place for him or herself in a different kind of community. We are a social species. All of us seek companionship, fellowship, and, ultimately, community. All of us, even those among us who consider themselves fiercely independent, want to belong to something, to be a part of a larger whole. On a purely biological level, we know that without the presence of other people, a human being, even one who has all the food and water he needs, cannot survive. And, according to the Jewish tradition, this is also true on a spiritual level. God says in the Book of Genesis, “it is not good for man to be alone.” We are wired to seek out community.
The question, then, is not whether we will form or join communities. The challenge is what kind of communities we will form and join. What will be the purpose of our gathering? What will we come together for?
The Torah masterfully calls our attention to this challenge by its use, in two radically different contexts, of the same verb, kahal, which means to gather together. In this morning’s Torah portion, we read “Va-Yak’hel Moshe et kol adat b’nei Yisrael, and Moses gathered together the whole congregation of the Children of Israel” (Exodus 35:1). Using this verb, kahal, which again means to gather together, our portion details how the Children of Israel gather to construct the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary that symbolized nothing less than God’s presence in their midst.
But just last week, we read the exact same verb, kahal, in Parashat Ki Tissa. Except there, the verb was used to describe how the people gather together to build the Golden Calf. “Va-Yar ha-am ki voshesh Mosheh laredet min ha-har, Va-Yi-kahel ha-am al Aharon va-yom’ru elav kum aseh lanu Elohim…When the people saw that Moses was taking so long to come down the mountain, they gathered together against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god'” (Exodus 32:1). Using the same verb, last week’s portion details how the Children of Israel gather together to build an idol, something that they could use to replace God.
By using this one word in these two opposite scenes, the Torah is teaching that these are the two paradigms for community: Either we are gathering to build sanctuaries, or we are gathering to build idols. Either we are gathering together to invite God’s presence into the world; to make ourselves, each other, and the world more holy and a more fitting dwelling place for the Divine; or we are gathering together to diminish God’s place in our lives, in each others’ lives, and in the world.
One reason the Torah presents this as such a stark choice because of the fact that, in order to be part of a group, we always have to give up some measure of autonomy. Of necessity, I have to give up some of “me” in order to be a part of “we.” A gathering of people where everyone acts exclusively in their own interests is not a group; it is a collection of individuals. And if you give it enough time, a collection of very agitated and frustrated individuals. All communities make demands on our time, resources, and behavior, and we live our lives, sometimes in ways we don’t even acknowledge or realize, according to the laws and rules of those groups.
As I entered high school, I switched from a small Jewish day school to a larger Christian prep school. In that new environment, I felt really lonely for perhaps the first time in my life. I wasn’t athletic enough for the jocks, creative enough for the artists, or smart enough for the honors’ students.
So I started hanging out with the punk rock kids. Ironically, for a group of kids who claimed to be for chaos and against all authority, they seemed to place many demands on my autonomy: you couldn’t really be a self-respecting punk unless you wore plaid pants and combat boots and listened to bands like the Misfits.
So I tried joining the Goths – the mopey kids who dress entirely in black, listen to nihilistic music, and sit around all day talking about the pain, misery and pointlessness of life. I asked the goth kids, “how do I join you?” And they replied, “If you want to be one of the non-conformists, all you have to do is dress just like us and listen to the same music we do.”
Ultimately, I discovered that all communities, even the ones that we perceive as being “purely social,” stand for things. Every group has its own set of values and expectations, to which its members, at least to some degree, must acquiesce. And, in that sense, I think there are really only two kinds of communities: those that push us to be better people and that provide us with ways of making the world a better place, and those that do not.
That’s why the Torah tries to make the choice as clear as possible. We can become part of communities that empower us to better ourselves, to help each other, and to make the world a better place. Or we can become part of communities that encourage us to act on the worst in ourselves, to hurt others, and to ignore the imperative to repair the world.
The story of the biblical heroine, Ruth, I think, is a powerful example. Ruth was a Moabite woman who was married to a Jewish man. When her husband died, she could have easily found a new life for herself back in her home community of Moab. But instead, as her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, turned to head back to Judah, Ruth begs her:
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16).
If you look at this beautiful passage, it was not only a longing for community that compelled Ruth to follow Naomi back to Judah. If all Ruth wanted was a group of people with whom to belong, she could have found that in Moab. No, Ruth’s desire was for a community of meaning. I will go where you go, she says, stay where you stay, make your people my people, and die where you die. Why? So your God can be my God.
As I was trying different communities in high school, I ended up checking out USY. In USY, I found a community of people who were focused on things that few other kids in those other communities seemed to cared about. My peers in USY spent their weekends visiting the elderly and holding tzedakah bake sales. They prayed. They studied together and had meaningful conversations about God and the future of Judaism. They celebrated each others’ accomplishments. They were embracing and open-minded, not because they were all naturally nice, but because it was they took it upon themselves as a Jewishly inspired communal expectation. Of course, there was a lot of fun and socializing and frivolity, too. But the difference I found in USY was that all that stuff served deeper goals: to encourage each of us to better ourselves, to teach us to help each other, and to inspire us to make the world a better place.
My point is not to sell USY, although I will pause for a brief commercial: I hope all you kids out there will at least try USY when you are old enough, and that I hope all you parents will do everything you can to encourage your kids to join USY.
But USY is only one example of the kind of community I’m talking about. There are many, many others out there. Some are for kids, and some are for us grown-ups. Some transcend demographics. And it is not limited to Jews or Jewish communities or Jewish organizations. There are Jewish communities that build sanctuaries and Jewish communities that build calves. And there are non-Jewish communities that build sanctuaries and non-Jewish communities that build calves.
And the way to tell one kind of community from another is to ask: is Torah at the center of this community? Is Torah at the center of this community? Here I mean Torah not in the literal sense but in the broadest possible sense: that which helps us perfect ourselves, perfect each other, and perfect our world. This, I think, is a universal standard, applicable to Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike.
I learn this in part from the late-nineteenth century Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk, known as the Meshekh Hokhmah. Our parashah refers to the Mishkan as “Mishkan Ha-Edut,” the Sanctuary of Testimony (Exodus 38:21). According to the Meshekh Hokhmah, this means “the tablets of testimony – that is to say, the Ten Commandments – were always in the Ark. And God’s presence only resided in the sanctuary when the Ark was in it. This means that if the sanctuary were built properly, but the Ark was not placed inside, then it is has actually become a great place of idolatry.”
Even something as seemingly sacred as building the sanctuary can become calf-building unless Torah is at the center.
A community is, in this sense, like a body. And Torah ought to be its soul. In our community, let us commit ourselves to keep our soul, our Torah, beautiful, inspiring, challenging, relevant, and eternally at the heart of all we do.