Nitzavim 5782 – All for One and One for All

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

This week’s torah portion begins: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem” which means: “You stand this day, all of you.” Moses is speaking to the Israelite community one last time before they enter the Promised Land and before he dies.

Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the covenant with God. He tells them that God’s covenant belongs to every member of the community regardless of age, gender, or social station.  It includes the pious and faithful as well as the rebellious and confused. Its expansiveness extends even to include the countless generations yet to come. He is holding every member of the community accountable for their actions.

God redeemed the children of Israel from the horrors of ancient Egyptian slavery, cared for them throughout their sojourns in the desert, and gave them a system of ethical and ritual laws to sustain them as a community in a difficult ancient world. It is essential that the community live according to the covenant established for them.

Though Moses names every class and subgroup within the community, he simultaneously invites his audience to let go of the labels and the social segregation they represent. Moses encounters people with little personal experience of being together as more than a community of convenience. Moses gathers this new generation, bids them to look around at everyone else, and feel a shared commitment to the covenant. Moses’ strategy is to make them feel connected to each other as they attach their minds to a universal covenant.

One of the best ways of turning a diverse, disconnected group into a team is to get them to build something together. Hence, the  Mishkan. The best way of strengthening relationships is to set aside dedicated time when we focus not on the pursuit of individual self-interest but on the things we share, such as praying together, studying Torah together, and celebrating together – in other words, Shabbat. So, Shabbat and the Mishkan were the two great community-building experiences of the Israelites in the desert.

Jewish life revolves around two institutions: the home and the community. Each is endowed with unique meaning, and between these two-private and public spaces-education, ritual, and everyday life takes place.

A community is a group of individuals connected to each other by one or more attributes. Just as denoted by the root and suffix of the word, common – unity, a certain segment of the population is united by a familiar thread. Establishing a community is a way to bring people together to educate and support each other. It consists of a group of people with common and shared interests.  As human beings, we need a sense of belonging, and  that sense of belonging is what connects us to the many relationships we develop. Unity is where we find comfort in difficult times.

While most people need to be part of a community for life’s necessities, many people want to be part of a community because there is something very fulfilling about being part of a group of people who share something more substantial than geographical location. It makes individuals seem less lonely. A community is a safe place.

According to Harvard health, community involvement leads to a reduction in stress and also greater life satisfaction.

Jewish families cannot live in isolation. To live a full Jewish life requires engagement with other Jews, a Jewish community, a kehilla. The community provides services and experiences that the home cannot, and in addition, fellowship and participation in community have inherent spiritual value in Judaism.

The Talmudic pronouncement expressing the unity of Jews, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” is usually translated as” all of Israel is responsible for one another.” This is what community is about- taking care of each other.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs says that it is no accident the Jewish people call themselves “Am Yisrael”-the people of Israel. A sense of peoplehood has long been a defining characteristic of the Jews. On an everyday level, this focus on peoplehood is translated into an emphasis on community as a primary organizing structure of Jewish life. Wherever Jews have lived, they have built synagogues, established communal organizations, and created systems of communal governance. In order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all members’ spiritual and physical needs. In contemporary times, Jewish communities have sprung up around other types of institutions, including Jewish Community Centers, schools, camps, local Federations, and Jewish non-profit organizations. In all these cases, a building or organization serves as an initial point for a group of people who then begin caring for each other and taking care of one another’s needs.

Throughout the Torah, community is a value which is held with highest of importance. Historically, this was because if you were not connected to an identifying community, you were quite literally lost. But as our modern age continues to advance at warp speed, young people, in particular, are becoming distanced from community and getting lost in a sea of digital pseudo-connection.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that religion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good.

Judaism is of its essence a collective endeavor, and as a result it is deeply communal in its spirituality.   Jewish teachings emphasize the open house, the extended family, and welcoming the stranger.

Though the precise structure of Jewish communities has changed according to place, time and current interest, membership in a Jewish community has always demanded a sense of shared destiny, manifested in the obligation to care for other members of the community, as well as the joy of partaking in other’s celebrations.

By magnifying our strengths in the community, we can build a stronger, more powerful and effective congregation. Why do we need a more productive Kehilla? There are things that we can do in a community that cannot be done as individuals. We must take responsibility for speaking up for others in need. It takes us one step closer to perfection as a congregation and Jewish community.