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On community

12/02/2022 09:09:40 PM


Arlene Rosenberg, President


Shabbat Shalom, and welcome once again to our Board Consecration Shabbat.  It is my honor, as president of the PTS board, to chair this group of smart, caring, and committed trustees who not only have led us beautifully in our service this evening, but who generously devote their time and talents to leading our congregation.  

Our trustees bring a wealth of experience to the PTS board, including, for many of us, service on other corporate and nonprofit boards.  We recognize, however, that serving on the PTS board is different. Yes, we have the same legal, financial, and managerial responsibilities as the trustees of any other for-profit or nonprofit entity.  But as PTS trustees, we have an additional, greater responsibility.  We are not merely governing an organization.  We are safeguarding a sacred community.

To remind ourselves of that obligation, we begin each board meeting by reciting the following blessing for community work:  Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzeevanu la’asok b’tzorchay tziburBlessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us with your commandments and commands us to occupy ourselves with the needs of the community.

Those of you who are Torah study regulars may notice that this blessing parallels the language of the blessing we say before studying Jewish texts, which begins with the same formula and ends with the words, “v’tzeevanu la’asok b’dvrei Torah” – “and commands us to occupy ourselves with words of Torah.”

As I’m sure you’ve surmised, this parallel is not a coincidence.  The author of the blessing for community work, Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz, took his inspiration from a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud, which declares, “The one who is occupied with the needs of the community is like one who is occupied with matters of Torah.” (Yerushalmi, Brachot 5:1)  In other words, the rabbis considered community service to be not just a mitzvah, but a mitzvah equal in importance to Torah study.  And we know from another part of the Talmud, one quoted in our morning liturgy, that Torah study is one of the most important of all the mitzvot.  

Why did our sages value the work of community service so highly?  I believe it is because community is at the very heart of Judaism

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs has pointed out, “It is no accident that the Jewish people call themselves ‘Am Yisrael’ – ‘the People of Israel’ – rather than ‘Dat Yisrael,’ or ‘the religion of Israel.’  A sense of peoplehood has long been the defining characteristic of the Jews.”  This sense of peoplehood, Rabbi Jacobs explains, is expressed through an emphasis on the community as the primary organizing structure of Jewish life.

The emphasis on community goes all the way back to our earliest stories and texts.  Since I joined PTS, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in Rabbi Feder’s Back to the Source class, in which we have been reading the Hebrew Bible verse by verse.  During this deep dive into our foundational narrative, I have been struck by the realization that the Judaism outlined in the Torah is not a personal religion, but a communal one.  The Torah is not a guide to individual fulfillment and enlightenment; it is a rulebook for living in a society where everyone is responsible for one another. 

Of course, I’m far from the first person to reach this conclusion.  Rabbi Jacobs notes that “the central experience of Jewish history – the only event that demands an annual retelling – is the exodus from Egypt,” which she describes as “primarily an experience of national liberation, rather than a moment of religious awakening.” Likewise, Rabbi Dovid Rosenfield has observed that unlike the book of Genesis, which focuses on great individuals, the book of Exodus focuses on the nation.  He notes, for example, that when describing the Israelites standing at the base of Mount Sinai, the Torah refers to them in the singular because at that moment, they were like “one [person] with one heart.”

Indeed, there is an important principle in Jewish law which states, “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba zeh” –  “All Jews are responsible for one another.” The Hebrew word “areivim” comes from a root that means to be mixed together, implying that all Jews are mixed together to form a single entity. Thus, as Rabbi Garth Silberstein has explained, “We are all responsible for one another because we are fundamentally bound up together, like one spiritual body with many heads.”  

The centrality of community was also recognized by the great sage Hillel, who exhorted, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”  And one midrash goes so far as to liken separating oneself from the community to destroying the world.

The fact is, Judaism cannot be fully experienced or realized without a community.  Rabbi Rosenfield notes that this is literally true, observing that the Torah contains 613 commandments, but no one Jew can perform them all, since some apply only to priests and some only to non-priests, some to men and some to women, and so on.  God’s intention, he therefore concludes, was that we perform the commandments together.  And of course, many Jewish observances – from reciting kaddish to celebrating a marriage – can only be practiced communally. 

Rabbi Rosenfield further observes that as a practical matter, members of our community have unique gifts and talents that make them particularly suited to different areas of Jewish practice.  He notes, “Some are scribes, some … can slaughter animals or perform circumcisions, some are educators, …, some are thinkers or visionaries, some down-to-earth doers, etc.”  I would add that different members of our community find meaning in different types of Jewish expression.  Some are drawn to worship, some to study, some to the pursuit of social justice, and so on.  Only by combining our skills and passions do we become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” as envisioned in Exodus 19:6.

The understanding that Judaism cannot live and thrive without community is what motivates our trustees to do the work we do.

A few months ago, I asked trustees to share, in a few sentences, their answers to the questions “Why join a synagogue?” and “Why join PTS?” We created a word cloud – a visual representation of the most commonly used words or phrases – based on the responses.  The word “community” was by far the largest image on the word cloud, indicating that it appeared in the responses with the greatest frequency.

Trustees have also been having conversations with one another about why PTS matters to us.  We have shared stories about finding lifelong friendships, being supported through loss and tragedy, sharing holidays and lifecycle events, deepening our connection to our Jewish heritage, expressing our Jewish values through social action and social justice, and passing on Jewish traditions to our children.  At the root of all these stories is the core idea expressed by one trustee, who said, “I can’t bring Judaism to my family all by myself; I need a community.”

This is why our trustees feel commanded la’asok b’tzorchay tzibur – to occupy ourselves with the needs of this sacred community:  to ensure that PTS remains strong and vibrant, so our congregants and the generations that follow can experience the richness and beauty of Judaism. And we feel blessed that you have entrusted us with this holy task.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, April 23 2024 15 Nisan 5784