of a Whole: Caring Community
October 8, 2011
boat filled with travelers sails in the ocean, when suddenly one passenger
begins to drill a hole in the floor. His fellow passengers plead with him
to stop, but the man says, "Mind your own business. This is my seat,
and I can do whatever I want to the floor under it. Am I telling you what
to do? No. So why don't you leave me alone?"
midrash—this classic Jewish legend-- of course, is not about a boat. It
is about how different parts of one entity can make or break the integrity of
the whole. Inspired by this
midrash, the 16th century mystic Isaac Luria imagined that the
Jewish community is a body, each of us, a limb.
Take a walk and feel your left arm swing forward as your right leg
takes a step. Injure just your pinky toe
and feel your entire leg strain from the physical compensation. As we move through life, each of our limbs
makes a constant and lasting impact on our whole body.
We can see this connectedness at Rodeph Shalom every day. As we move through congregational life, each
limb, each member, has the potential to make a lasting impact on the whole
community body. As limbs of a whole body, we are
This interdependent vision of
true community is not easy. And so, as sociologist Robert Bellah argues, instead of forming
communities, people form lifestyle enclaves.
A lifestyle enclave is a group, such as a country club or soccer league that
is composed of people with similar backgrounds, ages, political views,
interests, even appearances. What
characterizes a lifestyle enclave is homogeneity and independence. For instance, when families grow out of commercial
play-spaces, such as the Please Touch Museum, we move onto the next activity. It’s not a permanent relationship. In a community, we share responsibility; we share
a past and we share a future. What
differentiates a community from a lifestyle enclave, Bellah explains, is that
community commitments run deeper and the diversity of the members is much
Jewish tradition challenges
us to move past the enclave in religious life.
Countercultural and yet deeply relevant, Isaac Luria’s image of limbs of
the body reminds us that we are bound together, that interdependent community
transcends the individual. This morning,
as we confessed our transgressions to God, we recited our prayers in the plural
form. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu—that
suffix “nu” means “we.” Al chet
she’chatanu—for all these we
sinned. We pray in the plural in an
effort to support one another. We also
confess in the plural because we live in the same community where we enable sin
to exist, even when it is not directly our own.
With the plural voice, we proclaim our shared responsibility and our
shared destiny. As limbs of a whole body, we are
From singing in the Congregational choir, to
greeting at the door, to reading Torah, there are many ways for us here to
participate in the interdependence of community. Some of the most profound connections in our
congregation occur when we accompany each other through life’s most intense
experiences. Jewish tradition offers a
prescription for us to support each limb in our community body. It comes
in the form of the daily prayer, Elu Divarim, which we recited this
morning. The Elu Divarim prayer reads:
These are obligations whose worth cannot be measured: honoring one’s father and
mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, dealing
graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple,
accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace
among people. In order to transform a
group of people into a true community, Elu Divarim submits, we need to become
what synagogues now call a Caring Community.
We need to comfort each other in times of loss, celebrate with each
other in times of joy.
Elu Divarim demands action. You know the bumper sticker that reads “Do
random acts of kindness”? It’s sweet,
but it’s not Jewish. There is nothing
random about mitzvot. We are bound to
one another as limbs of a body. When we
comfort the mourner, when we visit the isolated, when we celebrate a wedding
blessing, when we reach out and draw one another in, it is with intention. And I would go so far to say that it is with responsibility.
True, Reform Judaism offers individual choice rather
than obligation to Jewish law. Yet, as
Rabbi Freedman taught on Rosh Hashanah, some choices require commitment. If we choose to have a caring and binding
community, rather than just an enclave, then the mitzvot: to comfort, to visit,
to celebrate --compel each of us to share the responsibility and to bring
ourselves to the whole. Our congregation
is proud of a growing effort whereby members take care of one another with
intentional acts of kindness, in our own growing Caring Community network.
Elu Divarim forges a path of what
we can bring and what we can receive in order to foster a bond of
belonging. The text teaches us a model for
a Caring Community network, in which we touch each other in our most intense
life experiences and in our moments of deepest need.
Sometimes, the greatest obstacle
to heeding the call of Elu Divarim is the challenge of vulnerability. Intense life experiences force us to face
mortality and to see each other when we are not at our best.
I understand the temptation to
separate from others in vulnerable moments.
Last year, I underwent emergency surgery. It’s behind me now and I’m fine. But at the time, I looked and felt so fragile
that I wanted to hide. As I know many of
you have experienced in your own health challenges: I could barely stay
awake. I could not cough out a sentence
much less a conversation. I did not want
anyone to encounter me as weak. I did
not even let Rabbi Kuhn visit me in the hospital. That was a mistake. There’s nothing wrong with a little vanity
and a little privacy. But I allowed it
to get in the way of connection and support.
Finally, while I recovered at home, I let Rabbi Kuhn, as well as a few
others, visit me. As challenging as it
was to set aside some pride, and accept that people would see me at my weakest,
not to mention see toys strewn all over the living room and dirty dishes all
over the kitchen, the visits pulled me back into a world where I am not alone,
and my family is not alone. I do not
live in isolation, nor do the people who reached out to me. It took me those few days to remember that
relationships are more important than privacy and that connections are more
healing than isolation.
In order to participate in each
other’s lives, we need to open the door and let each other in. Those of us who need a visit, need company,
need presence, are typically not at our best—not at our social best or our physical
best or our cognitive best. We know it
and we feel exposed. We are broken and
we do not want to be seen. Privacy
becomes our crutch, isolation, the unintended consequence.
In my work as a rabbi, I am more
typically on the other side of the hospital bed, or of the home visit. I find deep meaning in my visits with
congregants who are experiencing loneliness, pain or fear. Still, as I know many of you have experienced
when making visits, sharing company with those experiencing such vulnerability
often requires us to confront uncomfortable realities of mortality, of
weakness, of diminished capabilities.
The Talmud, a 5th
century Jewish text, instructs: “Be careful to
respect an old man who has forgotten his knowledge through no fault of his
own.” For it is said, “When the Israelites carried the Torah through the
wilderness, both the whole tablets and the fragments of the tablets were placed
in the Holy Ark.”
In lifestyle enclaves, we want to
be seen as our best. In our community,
we need to be seen, even in our brokenness.
And as we visit others in need, we need to respect them in their
brokenness. Indeed, the fragments, too,
were placed in the Holy Ark.
Many members of our congregation have exposed their
brokenness and many of you have accompanied others in their times of need. Last year, a fairly new member who was a
regular at our Shabbat services, found that his cancer became more
aggressive. At times, he needed to be
hospitalized and eventually he became homebound, in the care of hospice. His wife spent part of her days at work and
part of her days sitting with him.
This couple did not have family living in the
area. Meals were not getting cooked and
another night of delivery pizza was not appealing. When another member of the congregation asked
if there was something she could do to help it became clear that a nutritious
meal was in order. One meal turned into
a whole schedule and congregants signed up to deliver. Someone who didn’t cook instead offered rides
from the airport for family and friends coming into town to visit their loved
one in his last days.
I remember visiting with this sick member in those
final days. Every breath was so labored
and he was exhausted enough to pause for rest in between sentences. And yet, he devoted some of that precious
remaining breath to words of gratitude for his community. He could no longer travel to the synagogue
and participate in Shabbat services; but, he appreciated how the synagogue came
Community support could not lengthen his life, but
it created a profound connection and transformed the end of his life. After the man succumbed to his cancer, these
congregants attended the funeral and shiva.
Each brought something of himself—a meal, a card, some company. Each brought something of herself—a ride, a
memory, a presence. As they brought
themselves, not only did they comfort the mourners, they saw one another
investing in the whole. To deliver a
meal was to feel a part of a greater effort to bring solace. To offer a ride, was to feel keenly that they
did not live in isolation from their congregant’s needs. To bring their presence was to be uplifted by
the reward of touching someone’s life.
And so, these people who were trying to help a congregant found that
their own connections to the community deepened.
This group of congregants could
not cure cancer. But they could create
profound connections. We cannot fix each
other’s problems, but we can transform each other’s lives. As limbs of a whole body, we are connected.
So many of you here at Rodeph Shalom are bringing
yourselves to important efforts to deepen the profound connections of this
community. You comfort one another in
times of sorrow and rejoice together in times of joy. Right now, our leadership is reimagining and
reorganizing our Caring Community network so that its efforts will touch more
congregants, especially in this time of congregational growth. This network will develop our communications
system so that your efforts to care for one another are better supported.
Our Caring Community leadership team has chosen to
first concentrate on reaching out and visiting our homebound members. Many of these members have spent their
lifetimes engaged at Rodeph Shalom and now find themselves isolated from the
community where they once brought so much of themselves. Some of our b’nei mitzvah students have
already taken the lead here, visiting our elderly and listening to the wisdom
they share, born out of the experiences of their long lives. To add to this effort, we will develop our
network of visitors and of congregants who can be visited. Please let me know if you are ready to sign
up to visit or if you know a member who should be visited. We will hold a Caring Community Homebound
Visiting orientation on October 25 and I hope you will feel compelled to
participate. I welcome you to flood my
inbox with your interest on Monday morning.
These are obligations whose worth cannot be
measured: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion,
arriving early for study, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick,
providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being
devoted in prayer, and making peace among people.
We share responsibility;
we share a past and we share a destiny. Parts of one entity can
make or break the integrity of the whole.
As we move through congregational life, each limb, each member, has the
potential to make a lasting impact on the whole community body.
As limbs of a whole body, may we be connected.